EU leaders must fight fire with fire

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

It’s easy to be sucked into the prevailing pessimistic EU narrative. You know the one: the Union is falling apart; Brexit will prompt an exodus of others seeking to leave the bloc; and pure, white Christian Europe is being invaded by nasty foreigners, most of them Muslim.

So let’s close down the EU shop. Will the last one out please turn off the lights?

Of course, it is not really that bad. As a visiting Chinese scholar speculated last week, Europeans are suffering from a particularly bad case of the blues – and instead of doing everything to make them feel better, dysfunctional European leaders may be making things worse.

As she put it: “Why can’t European leaders get their act together and stop whining and whinging about their ‘first world problems’”?

That’s harsh. Europe faces a multitude of crises: the Brexit vote and the uncertainty it has triggered; the rise of dangerous populism; the continuing, unresolved financial crisis.

It’s bleak. And nobody seems to like anyone anymore.

But the recent epic bouts of whining by Europe’s great and good are becoming increasingly tedious.

First on the scene to highlight Europe’s grim reality was Jean-Claude Juncker. In his annual State of the European Union speech, the European Commission President told MEPs that the EU is in an existential crisis. It was stark stuff.

Not to be outdone, European Council President Donald Tusk gave his own equally downbeat assessment. Then 27 EU leaders (minus British Prime Minister Theresa May) turned their Bratislava gathering – intended to be a show of solidarity – into yet another much-publicised bout of chest-beating over the fate of sad, old Europe.

There were some ‘roadmaps’ put forward, but they bore an unfortunate ‘Fortress Europe’ watermark. The undercurrent was to put Europe back together by pulling up the drawbridge and talking tough on security, but to soften the impact with new initiatives designed to distract, deflect and dazzle. Free Wi-Fi in every European town by 2020, anyone?

This approach is wrong-headed. The more EU leaders talk down Europe – and bewilder already-puzzled Europeans with more incomprehensible and makeshift initiatives – the more they perpetuate the myth of a lost continent.

The truth is more complex. Yes, Europe faces many problems. Unemployment remains high. The European economy has been weakened by years of economic stagnation and budgetary austerity. The ‘Gang of Four’ leaders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic want a closed-off, white and Christian Europe that has little truck with diversity and inclusiveness.

But despite policymakers’ moans and groans, the European story remains strong.

Europe has room for – and a need for – the refugees and migrants who have arrived on its shores. Europe also needs foreign tourists who will pump money into Europe’s service industry.

Europe’s intelligence agencies are getting better at working together, foiling plots and catching would-be terrorists who threaten Europe’s “way of life”.

The EU still has peace. It has reconciled enemies. It has created a hugely-successful frontier-free single market and the free movement of people.

The young people in Britain who voted Remain know the value of being part of the EU. Thousands of Europeans – individuals and companies – are working to welcome and integrate refugees and migrants.

But these truths are going unsaid.

By endlessly repeating, as Tusk did in Bratislava, that Europeans feel insecure in the face of migration and terrorism, EU leaders are amplifying the voice of populists and bolstering their power.

If they are really serious about winning Europeans’ trust and support, EU leaders must fight fire with fire. This means putting as much passion, energy and hard work into crafting a European narrative of peace and openness as the populists are investing in their nightmare version.

The populists already have their captive audience. With the battle over Brexit lost, EU leaders need to arm themselves with a vision of Europe that resonates with the aspirations of millions of Europeans who will not be voting for Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders or the Alternative für Deutschland.

The 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome next March provides the ideal opportunity for such a reboot. Europe is far from being a lost continent. But EU leaders have certainly lost their way.

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