Brexit, Black Pete and Bannon are testing Europe – but can’t defeat it

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

It’s been a turbulent and troubling year. Noisy and cantankerous, full of hate and fear. Lies and insults abound. We’re exhausted. But prepare for even more trouble ahead.
Certainly, 2019 isn’t going to be a walk in the park. There’s the upcoming Brexit divorce, elections to the European Parliament and fighting over new EU top jobs amid fears of electoral gains by Far Right populists, aided and abetted by America’s Far-Right hero, Steve Bannon.
Recent violent clashes in the Netherlands over Sinterklaas’ little helper, Black Pete – traditionally played by a white person with a blackened face, thick red lips, golden loop earrings and a curly afro wig – point to the abiding challenge of building a Europe where people of all colours, religions and ethnicities can feel equally at home.

2019 isn’t going to be a walk in the park

It’s going to be tough. Change and transformation always are. It’s often easier to divide people than to unite them. But sadly for the diehards, despite the dire headlines and even as the debates become more acrimonious, the clashes more violent and the insults more offensive, Europe is changing. For the better.
Green parties are winning elections across Europe on a forward-looking message of an open Europe. Their agenda, including the need to combat climate change, holds particular appeal to Europe’s millennials but also to a silent majority in the middle which is fed up with the lacklustre messages from Europe’s mainstream politicians, whether from the traditional right or the left.
More people support an open and tolerant Europe through campaigns such as #StopFundingHate and #PeoplesVote than there are those deliberately inciting hatred and the promotion of an inward and closed Europe.

There is sharp opposition to this “slippery slope” of course. An inclusive Europe is still out of the question for Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and others who still hanker for a Christian, white Europe with no Jews, no Muslims, no black, brown or yellow people.
EU countries – including Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic and Croatia – which are not signing the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, are clearly terrified of this inescapable multi-cultural future.

Brexit is similarly based on a hateful “us and them” narrative and the false premise that Britain can survive and thrive without “EU immigrants” who are hell bent on “jumping the queue”.
But wait a minute. British Prime Minister Theresa May who divided Britain between nice “somewheres” and bad “anywheres” in her Brexit campaign, is suddenly asking for unity as she struggles to convince feuding members of her Tory party, the British Parliament – and the British public – to back the Brexit deal now approved by EU leaders.

Also, while it will take time and will not be pleasant, it also looks like poor Black Pete may soon join the dust bin of out-dated traditions.
This won’t happen immediately, of course. Those clinging to “black face” are clearly loath to see it disappear. Geert Wilders, tried unsuccessfully a few years ago to introduce legislation to protect Black Pete and make it a part of Dutch national heritage.

Pro-Black Pete protests – and counter-protests – have been growing and becoming increasingly political in the Netherlands since 2010. This year, with football hooligans joining the pro-Black Pete fray, the clashes were more violent than ever.

But change is happening any way. The Dutch government may have washed its hands of the controversy, but major retail stores and national TV programmes featuring Singerklaas and his little servant have introduced watered down forms of the character, with Pete seen with soot smeared on his face, instead of black paint. “White Petes” are joining the show. Girls want to be part of the fun.

Europe is indeed in the midst of a painful and difficult transition, political, economic and social

The United Nations has recommended that the Netherlands “actively promote the elimination” of the racist character and his inclusion in festivals. Not everyone clinging to Black Pete is a racist of course. Some genuinely do not see the tradition as insulting.
Lost in the acrimony is the sad fact – pointed out by the Dutch children’s ombudsman – that black and brown Dutch children find the Sinterklaas season especially difficult as they are confronted with Black Pete insults, racist bullying and negative stereotypes.
Meanwhile, Steve Bannon’s ambitious plan to foment a “right wing populist” wave in next year’s European Parliament elections is in trouble. It appears that many of his European counterparts just aren’t that keen to see an American hijack their agenda – and appeal.
And as Britain’s Guardian Newspaper recently reported, there is also the possibility that Bannon would be barred or prevented from doing any meaningful work in many of the countries where he wants to campaign.
Too bad for Bannon, very good for all the others. Also, one-time US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton may think she is being pragmatic and helpful in advising Europe’s mainstream politicians to mimic the Far Right populists’ rhetoric on immigration. But she’s wrong.
Europe is indeed in the midst of a painful and difficult transition, political, economic and social. Some find solace in nostalgia for an imaginary past, others are moving into the future, with hope and optimism.
It’s simple: while make making our choices in next year’s elections and for the top EU jobs, let’s make sure to vote for more women, ethnic minority representatives and men who have the courage, energy and enthusiasm to make Europe matter in the 21st Century.

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