Letter to a besieged Europe

Francisco de Borja Lasheras gives a wake-up call for Europe to address its most pressing challenges before it is too late.

This commentary is the English translation of an op-ed first published in El Mundo. You can find the original Spanish version here.

Dear besieged Europe, look west. On the other side of the Atlantic, the US president-elect has sympathy for Nigel Farage, Vladimir Putin and others who do not wish you well (these are mere facts, inconvenient as they are these days). A megalomaniac who foresees the end of your Union and who found out about Brexit on his way to a golf event in Scotland on the very day of the referendum. Without sparking unnecessary alarmism, your most indispensable ally could become somewhat more unpredictable and erratic. Vouch for this relationship, but do not resign yourself to the role of a mere servant as some of your governments did, thinking that everything would carry on as before, or even get better. Self-delusion is so tempting. I hope I will be proved wrong, but power tends to corrupt, not purify, and Trump enters the Oval Office carrying negative baggage, a system of checks and balances which is especially weak when it comes to foreign policy, and policies which can harm your way of life. Open the door but be watchful. Make positive gestures, in defence for example, but lay down red lines and do not let them divide you (remember Iraq?). If principles still matter to you, be ready to stand up to a United States which is showing its worst side once again.       

Europe, look towards the Great South. Look at the waters of the Mediterranean where Aylans perish and are forgotten under the obligatory avalanche of tweets, or look at the hundreds of thousands of refugees which some of your members do not wish to accept, lifting a load off Merkel’s burdened shoulders, with arguments which used to be unacceptable. Most of these people flee from wars like the one in Syria which you short-sightedly did not want to deal with in 2011 and which is now on your doorstep. (Later we can talk about the Europeans on the extreme left and right who – like those who deny Auschwitz or the gulags – support Bashir al Assad, a man who in another era at least you would have sent belatedly before an international court, just like Milosevic.)

Look at North Africa, where Tunisia is virtually an island of fragile democracy surrounded by violence and autocrats to whom you look once more as bastions of stability in a chaotic world. Do not lower your guard: they are a mirage in the desert. That same desert where the black flags of the Islamic State who has hit you hard, flutter. Beyond lies the inhospitable Sahel, as big as your entire continent, perhaps the new southern frontier of our security. Then there is that rising Africa with emerging middle classes which you will have to take into account too, but in between you have a sea of bleeding crises.

Look to your own Eastern part. Hard to believe these days, there are Europeans outside the borders of your Union -women, activists and entrepreneurs amongst them- who, despite the empire of the East, their own oligarchs and the negative vibes you give off amidst this Europhobic meltdown, strive against all odds to reform their countries and bring them closer to the fantasy dream they have of you. A fantasy that differs from your own reality nowadays, but is nevertheless inspiring. It should make you reflect if you still believe in your own Utopia, as opposed to the dystopias sprouting in your midst, in the West and beyond. Hold out few hopes for this Kremlin adored in the EU by its neofascist and Stalinist lackeys. Many of your politicians wish to find a partner not just in Russia, but in Putin himself in spite of Crimea (in a way, a new Sudetenland), the 10,000 dead in Ukraine, the European citizens travelling on flight MH17 to an AIDS conference or the anti-European and chauvinistic propaganda on channels which portray you as decadent “Gayropa”. Avoid delusions: getting pally is not a strategy; it is seen as weakness and it does not work. Right now, that authoritarian system is an adversary to your model of democracy and security, unless of course you become something similar.

Take a closer look at the Balkans. Though I am conscious that this detracts from official theology, things are not going too well there, certainly from a democratization viewpoint, even though all of the states, including Bosnia, theoretically move in your direction. Their elites and oligarchs appeal irresponsibly to nationalism, blocking, sometimes with your blessing, progress towards real democracy and the social problems which push the population to emigrate in your direction. You have lost credibility there, while Erdogan, Russia and even the Gulf states boost their influence. May I also suggest to look more to the North, where the Arctic ice cap is melting (maybe take ‘the Donald’ on a whistle-stop tour to see if he will believe his own eyes)? This is partly the result of a system of governance that you wanted rule and human security based, but now nears bankruptcy. It cannot stop the thaw or the war crimes in Aleppo. It is choked by geopolitics, that so called “science” which Nazis found so alluring as it tends to condemn the weak to the yoke of the strong, in keeping with Thucydides’ saying, and which brutal return attracts some of your leaders and “strategic thinkers”. Fools, they forget how terribly ill you and all fared in an immoral world of unshackled great powers.

In the midst of a new Age of Insecurity, you will have to manage a Brexit which will consume precious energies, creating even greater tensions in the EU. But above all, Europe, look within yourself and our contemporary society because this is where the other great political and social clash of our time plays out: the struggle for open democracy and postmodern values. Prepare for more European Trumps. The first step is common sense: try to prevent them from winning and acquiring more influence on our public policies. You lack conviction. After the first European suicide one hundred years ago, the Irish poet Yeats wrote in his apocalyptic The Second Coming that line about how “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate activity”. The fight for values is being waged precisely by those who want to subvert fundamental principles and a political and security model that we must question, review, but whose destruction would be suicidal. It is not enough to talk of past glories. That legitimacy means nothing nowadays, as in the EU we no longer have memories of the ashes of 1945. There is anxiety and fear in our midst and we face serious dilemmas over our future. You and your states must find ways to boost prosperity while at the same time consider guarantees concerning imbalances that globalisation has caused. The fact is, stale old Europe, you need reforms, and some of them will not be instantly popular. There will be more social and political conflict. True, the laws of nature mean there will always be winners and losers, but your law could be more humane.

Europe, defend your founding philosophy, humanism. Many of your politicians need to regain the  streets to renew faith in the institutions, and, instead of so much social media and frivolity, ought to rediscover the empathy, now in the hands of your cynical opponents. As well as recovering legitimacy, you have another equally urgent battle: combatting the legitimisation of the politics of hatred and lies deployed by unscrupulous leaders and media who seize upon discontent and fear, creating this polarised and xenophobic climate. A politics that, under a democratic guise, pursues an undemocratic agenda against fundamental rights and freedoms and that could unleash “that wild beast which lives in man and does not dare to show itself until barriers of law and custom have been removed”, in the words of the Yugoslav Ivo Andric. Socioeconomic measures are important, but they will not be enough; many of those among the most disadvantaged and left behind voted for Clinton, and those who supported Trump may discover that they may have voted for social policies contrary to their interests. You must combat the dystopias of these authoritarian and demagogues. Against their counter-revolution, the sometimes obtuse, naïve or selfish mentality (it is always others who get the blows) of some of your leaders will not suffice. Some young people in the UK get it and have launched a campaign called Stop Funding Hate against the sensationalist press sowing the seeds of intolerance. Merkel gets it too; her cold message to Trump laced with references to basic values struck the right note but once again she stands alone. We need more responsible political leadership, ethical and not resigned to the new normal (which is neither new nor normal). Otherwise, these bad times will get worse.

Europe, sitting in this sunny Santa Ana square in Madrid, I see couples out walking freely, men holding hands – unthinkable not long ago – and parents with their children. In the middle, a timeless statue of Lorca. This feels like another Stefan Zweig moment as I contemplate a world which could disappear just as has happened to others. Perhaps it is still not too late, and our social and political leaders will rise to the occasion, together with many, though not all, of my fellow citizens. It will require a great spirit of commitment and sacrifice, but there is too much at stake. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head of ECFR Madrid Office & Policy Fellow

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