Shada Islam is Director of Europe & Geopolitics at Friends of Europe
Be prepared for even tougher times. Europe faces a long list of challenges as it prepares for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU club, elections to the European Parliament and the installation of a new European Commission.
Add to that an ever-longer shadow cast by the volatile and unpredictable US President Donald Trump and ongoing visible and invisible meddling by Russian President Vladimir Putin and it’s clear that the months ahead are going to test the EU in many ways.
The real danger facing Europe comes from within, however. The ever-deeper divide within Europe between those who are still proud to call themselves liberal democrats and the increasing number of governments and groups which make no secret of their illiberal character poses a much more potent threat to Europe’s future than Trump’s foibles.
Racist, xenophobic and Eurosceptic sentiments peddled by the illiberal populists are eroding Europe’s foundations. In a globalised world, their efforts to upend Europe’s core values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, are also undermining the EU’s role and influence abroad.
To thrive, rather than merely survive in the coming years, the EU must stop this rot, reconnect with citizens, regain their trust, ease their anxieties and above all get them to vote in the upcoming European Parliament elections.
In modern Europe, the real heroes of the 21st century are not national politicians but local ones
It won’t be easy. Europe’s mainstream politicians, entangled in their debilitating tribal internal party quarrels, have allowed Eurosceptics and populists to seize control of Europe’s agenda and shape the debate.
This is a slippery path – and one that Europe has travelled on before, with tragic consequences. But who is blowing the trumpet for liberal Europe?
Well, there’s Irish rock band U2 lead singer Bono who has just declared his love for Europe’s commitment to diversity. European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans has warned against the “politics of paranoia…the disruptive forces of xenophobia, intolerance, illiberalism and nationalism”.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are putting up a brave defence. And former UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has lambasted Europe’s populists for peddling hate.
So what’s the best pushback? Here are some suggestions:
Since migration seems to be the populists’ biggest draw, improved management of European migration will go some way to reassure Europeans that governments are dealing with the issue in a sensible, pragmatic and humane manner.
Europe’s mainstream politicians should stop embracing – and amplifying – the toxic rhetoric of the Far Right and tell the true story of Europe’s economic need for migrants, the economic and societal value of diversity and the EU’s international obligations as regards asylum. It also demands, of course, a review and up-dating of the Dublin Convention and work on opening up more legal pathways for entry into Europe.
European politicians and institutions must become less reluctant in challenging EU governments which are in breach of European values, including through rule of law provisions but also by using budgetary powers to stop member states breaking the law.
In a world of “fake news”, algorithms and “bots” where politicians call journalists “enemies of the people,” more efforts are needed by governments and citizens to invest in a free, independent, honest and credible press. Journalists, in turn, must not abdicate their responsibility to speak truth to power.
Policymakers need to connect more forcefully with peoples’ networks and movements which are popping up across Europe – including Britain. New formats for a truly public dialogue on Europe are being established. Politicians must participate in these conversations, listen carefully to what is being said – and take appropriate actions.
The real danger facing Europe comes from within
In modern Europe, the real heroes of the 21st century are not national politicians but local ones, those working in Europe’s provinces, villages, towns and cities and dealing with the day-to-day problems of citizens. It’s mayors and local authorities who are standing up for immigration, fighting climate change and working in myriad ways to improve the lives of “ordinary” citizens. Global networks give added power to such initiatives.
Finally, Europe will only thrive and flourish when the European body politic becomes truly inclusive through the active participation of women, youth, migrants and ethnic minorities. Navigating today’s complex and rapidly-changing world requires a new definition of power, new skill sets and fresh approaches.
The risk is not that the EU will unravel. It won’t. It will muddle through. But the price of survival could be unacceptably high if in the process, the EU loses its commitment to core values and becomes little more than a transactional trade and aid arrangement.
A shrinking Europe – not just in terms of its size but also as regards its moral influence – would also strike a blow to the EU’s global ambitions, prestige and influence and to the rules-based multilateral order.
This would of course be exactly to the liking of Europe’s enemies who have little time for a world which is not based on nationalism and zero-sum games, where countries work together, despite their differences, for the greater public good.
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A version of this article will also be published in connection with the Bled Strategic Forum.
IMAGE CREDIT: © European Union 2015 - European Parliament