Burkinis, borders and Brexit – unfortunate new symbols of a fragile and fearful Europe

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

As Europe gets back to serious work, there is much to discuss, and much to do. Problems abound. Europe faces a host of challenges – many internal, some external – and next year won’t be any easier. Brace yourselves for an autumn and winter of discontent.

The world kept turning as the EU took a summer break. The war in Syria continued to wreak havoc – children were killed or wounded, and refugees fled devastation. The earthquake in Italy killed and injured hundreds. There were more suicide bombs, in Yemen, Turkey and Afghanistan. Strongmen in Ankara and Moscow tightened their grips. And the American election thundered poison and venom.

There were points of light: the Olympics brought some relief and excitement in an increasingly angry, intolerant and difficult world. There was also a landmark peace deal in Colombia between the government and the main left-wing rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), putting an end to one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies.

Europe reacted to the events of course – but internal difficulties took centre stage. Europe’s focus is on itself, its challenges and dilemmas. And rightly so. Global events matter, and the EU’s voice needs to be heard. But in these difficult times, Europe’s focus must be internal.

Even when it comes to taking a holiday. It is certainly good politics for European leaders to take their vacations in Europe. Brisk trekking in the Alps (rather than, say, in the Himalayas) shows that a European leader – like Britain’s new Prime Minister Theresa May – is careful with money and committed to Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also played it safe in South Tyrol.

But staying close to home has its disadvantages. Staying inside the European cocoon may be cheap, comfortable and familiar. But it leads to complacency. If EU leaders had travelled a bit further – to Asia, for instance – they would know they need to take urgent action to restore the EU’s lustre.

Europe has certainly been in the global headlines over the summer. But the reports have been less than flattering. Media across the world has focused on three key questions which unfortunately appear to define Europe in 2016: burkinis, borders and Brexit.

Gone for now are the compliments and the glowing words, the soft focus on European cities, museums and food, abiding admiration for European integration efforts, the noble pledge to steer clear of war and turmoil.

It’s difficult to talk about “European values” when, for much of the summer, France grabbed the headlines with the bizarre decision of some local authorities to ban so-called “burkinis”. Images of Muslim women being ordered to undress on French beaches caught the global imagination, triggering animated debates on what had happened to a country known and admired for its commitment to “liberté, égalité et fraternité”.

The burkini debate is, of course, only the tip of the iceberg. As the country heads for presidential elections in 2017, the French debate on Islam is expected to become even fiercer – and coarser. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the xenophobic and anti-Muslim National Front, will call the shots – and other politicians will struggle frantically to keep up.

The game in France over the coming months will be simple: who can sound tougher on Islam and Muslims. Le Pen is unlikely to become French President. But she will set the political agenda for the country and dominate the political discourse for months to come.

Which brings us to borders, refugees and Europe’s struggle to deal with the large number of migrants and asylum seekers already here – as well as with those who keep knocking on its doors.

The EU once captured the headlines for its bold moves to eliminate borders and create a frontier-free single market. The image now is of an EU determined to protect itself with barbed wire fences, armed policemen and more. This is especially the case in many eastern European states, where restrictive new laws are in place for asylum seekers and refugees who are accused of being “intruders” and “potential terrorists”, bent on destroying Western civilisation and Christianity.

And then of course there is Brexit. The world can’t really believe that a country would willingly leave a much-coveted rich men’s club. And no-one seems as confused as Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May and her disunited band of Brexiteers – Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox.

May’s mantra of “Brexit means Brexit” is beginning to ring hollow, not least because the government has yet to decide just when to invoke Article 50, which will kick-start negotiations on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.

Europeans once stood out for their post-modern values and aspirations, their ability to make friends with former enemies, their commitment to inclusion, and their diversity. That’s no longer the case. Europe in the autumn of 2016 appears fragile, fraught and fearful – and very few EU watchers are celebrating.

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