Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2016

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 4 January 2016

In the first blog post of 2015, I explored the origins of and various customs and conventions surrounding the Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state. This year, I will look more closely at the content of these speeches (although focussing – for the sake of brevity – only on presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state this time).

Finnish Niinistö records his New Year's speech for 2016 | photo (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

As I noted in my post last year, Christmas and New Year’s addresses rarely rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies and often include a short summary of the last year’s events in the country. Common themes (apart from holiday wishes) are relatively rare. This year, however, many presidents directly addressed the refugee crisis in Europe. The presidents of Austria and Germany who have had to deal with extraordinary refugee streams both called for compassion and tried to strengthen the ‘can do’-spirit that has so far characterised the reactions of Federal Chancellors’ Merkel and Faynmann and volunteers in both countries. Presidents of other countries hit by the surge of refugees did not address the issue so clearly. Hungarian president Ader referred to it among other unexpected events of 2015, while the Slovenian and Croatian presidents Pahor and Grabar-Kitarović in their – significantly shorter seasons’ greetings – did not raise the issue at all apart from vague references to difficulties.

The refugee crisis featured more prominently on the other hand in the speeches of Slovak president Kiska and Czech president Zeman – yet taking almost diametrically opposed positions. Kiska largely downplayed the issue stating Slovakia was much less affected than other countries and the issue should not dominate the national agenda. Zeman on the other hand, called the influx of refugees as “an organized invasion” and called for young male refugees to return to their country to fight ISIS. Given Zeman’s previous statements this is hardly surprising, yet it is generally unusual for a Christmas message to include such controversial material. The refugee crisis also took centre stage in speeches by Finnish president Niinistö as he justified the steps taken by the government to limit the number of people receiving help.

Another theme in presidential speeches were national tragedies and the security. The Paris attacks featured strongly in French president Hollande’s speech, so did the Germanwing air crash in German president Gauck’s Christmas message. The ongoing Ukrainian crisis and potential conflict with Russia as well as the war in Syria were included in a number of speeches. Yet presidents also focussed on the economic situation and way of the recession – most prominently included in the messages of the presidents of Greece, Portugal and Iceland. The latter’s speech was however mostly reported on due to the fact that president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson announced that he would not run for a sixth term as president.

Overall, this once again highlights that presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses can be important indicators of the political situation or the importance of particular events throughout the year. Until now, there has nevertheless been only very limited academic research on presidential statements on these occasions. So far, I could only find an analysis of the role of religion in new year’s addresses by Swiss Federal Presidents – showing an overall decline in biblical references throughout the years. [1] In most European republics appear to follow this trend – explicit biblical references beyond a mere reference to the holiday can only be found in the speeches of the presidents of Malta and Hungary.

Christmas - NY presidents 2016 + Wulff 2011

Last but not least (and partly inspired by the DailyMail’s analysis of the photographs on Queen Elizabeth II’s desk), I think it is worth looking at the setting of presidents’ speeches. Where speeches are broadcast on TV (or recorded and then put on youtube), the setting is surprisingly similar with the president usually sitting or standing in front of flags or a fireplace. In Germany, this set-up had so much become the norm that Christian Wulff’s walking speech among a group of surprisingly diverse citizens (see centre image of above collage) caused great excitement among editors trying to fill the seasonal news slump. More unusual however was Swiss Federal President Adolf Ogi’s address of 2000 – he stood in front of a railway tunnel (watch the video here).

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[1] Kley, Andreas (2008). ‘”Und der Herrgott, Herr Bundespräsident?” Zivilreligion in den Neujahrsansprachen der schweizerischen Bundespräsidenten’. In: Kraus, Dieter et al.Schweizerisches Jahrbuch für Kirchenrecht. Bern, Switzerland, 11-56.

A list with links to the 2015/2016 speeches can be downloaded here.

…and a happy New Year! Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 5 January 2015

Every year millions of Britons gather in front of their ‘tellies’ to watch the Queen’s annual Christmas message. This year, over 7.8m viewers saw and heard her speak on the topic of reconciliation in the light of the WW I centenary and were delighted by references to her visit to the set of ‘Games of Thrones’, making it the UK’s Christmas TV highlight (it attracted 1.5m more viewers than the ‘Doctor Who’ Christmas special and 2m more viewers than the Christmas episode of the period drama ‘Downtown Abbey’). Given that this blog deals with presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state, writing about the Queen’s Christmas message might be peculiar for some readers. Nevertheless, the tradition of addressing the nation has – in the European context – first been documented for monarchs, with presidents continuing this tradition.

Queen Elizabeth's (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas address by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only two presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas.

Queen Elizabeth’s (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas addresses by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only three presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas Day.

British monarchs have only addressed the nation at Christmas since 1932 (on proposal of the BBC’s founding director). Earlier examples of public addresses to the nation on the occasion of Christmas or the New Year have been documented for Kings of Denmark and the German Emperor since the late 19th century. Starting with general well-wishes for the New Year and/or Christmas, holiday addresses have now developed into more elaborate speeches which are designed to reach a wide audience. Apart from general remarks about the holiday season and a short review of the last year, heads of state also often highlight specific themes in their message. Thereby, the degree to which the content is ‘political’ tends to vary with the constitutional position of the head of state. In the European monarchies the content is often coordinated with the government (although much this process – like so many interactions between constitutional monarchs and elected representatives – remains shrouded in secrecy) and themes or highlights tend to be rather uncontroversial. Likewise, indirectly elected presidents – with some exceptions – only rarely include strong political statements or use speeches to express entirely new opinions. In Switzerland, New Year’s Day coincides with the inauguration of a new Federal President (the head of the collegial executive), so that the president’s New Year’s Address is simultaneously an inaugural address and does not necessarily follow this pattern. Popularly elected presidents are generally more likely to use this annual tradition to talk about (specific) policy. For instance, French president Francois Hollande spoke about economic reforms (several of which take effect 1 January 2015) and Cypriot president Nikos Anastasiadis outlined plans for modernisation of the state.

Map_of_EU_presidents-monarchs-xmas-ny

Apart from this divide, a less relevant albeit interesting division between presidents and monarchs appears in Europe. Apart from Germany, the Czech Republic and Malta, presidents address the nation on New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day (the Irish president provides a combined message), while the majority of monarchs (with Norway, Denmark and Monaco being the exception) deliver their message on Christmas Day. Hereby, it needs to be noted that German presidents until 1970 delivered their speech on New Year’s Day (which means they switched with the Chancellor). Czech presidents also gave New Year’s addresses until president Zeman returned to the pre-1949 tradition of delivering his speech at Christmas after his inauguration in 2013. I have tried to find reasons for the divide between presidents and monarchs, yet have not found any palpable evidence. Monarchs’ tendency to deliver Christmas messages might be related to their role in national churches (although this does not explain the Danish and Norwegian exceptions). Presidents on the other hand, deliver messages on the relatively world-view-‘neutral’ New Year’s Eve/Day. In Central and Eastern Europe, Communist leaders naturally avoided giving speeches on or related to Christmas Day. After the fall of Communism, this tradition was retained by the new democratic leaders. The Lithuanian and Romanian president form the general exception from all other European heads of state. While both issue short press statements to wish their citizens a happy Christmas and New Year, neither gives a specific speech. The Prince of Liechtenstein does not even that.

Although Christmas and New Year’s messages rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies. Nevertheless, they reflect – although in varying degrees – not only the institutional arrangements of European democracies. Furthermore, they shed light on how political traditions develop (be it formally or informally) and can carry on from one regime to another (monarchy to republic; autocracy to democracy).

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A list with links to this year’s Christmas and New Year’s Addresses can be found here (if available the link is to an English version) –> Links to speeches 2014-2015
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Should you know more about the history and practice of Chrismas/New Year’s messages by heads of state in the countries discussed above, please let us know in the comment section below.

Comparing inaugural addresses of CEE presidents: Putting the country first?!

Yesterday, Barack Obama was sworn in for his second term as US president drawing thousands to the West front of the Capitol and his inaugural address (full text here) was awaited by citizens and journalists around the world alike. In CEE inaugural addresses are usually held in parliament (also due to the fact that half of the president are elected there by the deputies and not by popular vote) and while presidents’ words receive their fair share of media attention, it can hardly measure up to American proportions.

Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev during his inaugural speech on 19 January 2012 © Office of the President of Bulgaria

Continue reading

Tweeting politicians in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia & Ukraine – Part 1: Presidents

Tweeting Politicians in Central and Eastern Europe - Part 1: Presidents

Since Barack Obama’s use of twitter and other social media has been cited as one of the reasons for his succesful campaign in 2008, more and more politicians (or their PR advisors) have discovered the power and advantages of delivering short, 140-character messages to their supporters. The digital revolution has also not left politicians in Central and Eastern Europe unaffected. In this two-part series of blog articles I will therefore survey whether and how politicians in CEE use twitter – and who you should follow. Continue reading

Fieldwork interviews: From phonebooks to fascists

This post first appeared on the UCL SSEES Research Blog on 8 November 2012

Fieldwork interviews in Eastern Europe can make big demands of young researchers. Careful preparation, creativity and persistence are the key to success, argue Erin Marie Saltman and Philipp Köker.

Ringbound notebook

Photo: Sikura via Wikicommons

Interviews are commonly used across a variety of disciplines – from anthropology to political science, from linguistics to economics.Sometimes, they are the only way to gain important information and, even when they are used alongside other research methods, can give researchers unique insights

However, despite the added value they can bring, conducting interviews is often a more or less a self-taught skill. While there are a few text books, these often remain general, sometimes leaving researchers with more questions than they started with. Courses offered by UCL cover interviewing more directly, but nothing quite prepares research students for using this method in the field.

Given the region’s history, people in Eastern Europe can also be suspicious of (foreign) researchers inquiring about their daily lives or political views. Structures like parties or civil society organisations are sometimes not yet well established enough or sufficiently attuned to help researchers find and contact potential interviewees. And even if you get an interview, the fact that even top politicians and experts often do not speak foreign languages makes interviewing more complicated (although admittedly, this can also be an issue in Western democracies).

A key tool for preparing interviews and developing interview skills, we felt, was for PhD students working on Eastern Europe to share concrete experiences and problems. Is there an effective way to convince a busy, high-profile politician to give you an interview? What do you do to find young radical right activists and how can you safely approach them? What do you do when your interviewees give only very short answers? And when should you record your interviews?

Working with fellow UCL PhD candidate, James Dawson – having between us previously conducted interviews with politicians, activists, experts and young people in Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Serbia, we convened a special event as a part of the SSEES’s PhD social science research seminar series to bring research students together in this way. Those attending the event were researching issues ranging from foreign policy to minority representation and women’s rights in Russia and several Central East European countries

Old serb woman in Kosovo enclave near Peć, Kosovo 2000

Foto_di_Signorina via Wikicommons

In discussion, we agreed that there are four stages to carrying out effective research interviews:

1) Preparing for interviews: Researchers need to make sure that they have an in-depth knowledge of the country, group or organisation where they will be conducting interviews –from important historic dates to local customs – and that they have chosen the right interview method. Questionnaires, focus groups or long, in-depth conversations all have different pros and cons.

2) Identifying and accessing respondents: Researchers must identify the people or groups they want to interview and think of ways to contact them. If you want to interview former government members or politicians, a list of people can be drawn up relatively easily from official publications or websites and these people can often be contacted directly through their offices or parties. But with less prominent respondents or members of the public, it is best to go through organisations and individuals, who might be able to help find suitable interviewees and arrange interviews.

3) Extracting information and building trust: Interview questions should be easy to understand and open-ended, but respondents must feel comfortable with the interview situation and it is the researcher’s responsibility to make sure that they do. Researchers also need to be aware of the different dynamics between interviewers and interviewees – some interviewees might be intimidated by the researcher and unwilling to disclose information. In other situations the researcher might equally intimidated by a high-profile politician or official who might in turn try to steer the interview in a different direction.

4) Recording and analysing data: The way researchers record their data differs greatly. While voice recorders are intimidating for some interviewees, they also offer the most accurate record (but need transcribing). Handwritten notes eliminate the need to transcribe but might lack details

During the event, we found that anecdotes had become a key method of explaining potential pitfalls, problems or accidental successes that could be encountered when interviewing. While stories of treating a group of little old Serbian women to tea and cookies elicited laughter they also showed how setting up a comfortable environment can produce more honest responses. The use of yellow pages and phone books to find similar last names of former top politicians, could sometimes lead to unexpected conversations with someone’s wife on the phone, but showed how contacting hard-to-reach high profile individuals was not impossible, but sometimes required creativity and persistence.

There were also some lively debates about ethics and the varying research contexts found across the region. Protecting respondents’ anonymity was discussed in some detail: interviewing in in the more authoritarian contexts of Russia and some other post-Soviet states can differ dramatically from carrying out interviews in Central and Eastern Europe. But even CEE can pose challenges. Participant observation at a summer camp in the countryside run by Hungary’s far right party Jobbik required a careful balancing of access to a high guarded group with safety risks.

Erin Marie Saltman and Philipp Köker are PhD candidates at UCL – SSEES.

Erin focuses in her research on young political activists in Hungary while Philipp’s research is primarily concerned with the use of presidential powers in Central and Eastern Europe about which he writes an academic blog.

They are currently planning a workshop on interviewing for research students from UCL, the University of London and universities in the CEELBAS consortium for language-based area studies.