The biggest, most unexpected and most shocking events of the past year for me and for many people in our sector were Brexit and Trump. Already in my review of the year 2015 I wrote: “As authoritarian government is on the rise globally, the space for civic participation is shrinking”. However, it was far beyond my imagination that, in 2016, developments would speed up so dramatically.
With Brexit, the courageous and farsighted European project of post-war reconciliation is being seriously endangered. As aggressive nationalism is spreading its wings across Europe, we need to once again start worrying about war in Central Europe, a concern we thought we had overcome for good.
For me personally, 2016 was the year in which I used my privilege of being a European citizen and moved to Portugal where I feel welcome and very much enjoy living in a different culture and speaking a different language. Will future generations no longer be able to enjoy such privileges? Will they be tied back into old, primitive, and dangerous concepts of national superiority? The fact that a majority of young Brits voted against Brexit provides some hope. Building a united Europe never looked like an easy task. We will have to allocate more time and effort to this task and brace ourselves for further setbacks – setbacks which don’t mean that the idea is wrong, but that we just need more time to learn and overcome old prejudices.
The Trump victory in the US is even further beyond my imagination. How could so many people – among them millions of women – elect a person who treats women with disrespect and contempt, who equates foreigners with criminals, and Muslims with terrorists? What does this result of a perfectly democratic election mean for our struggle for civic rights? What if a majority of citizens use their civic rights to elect authoritarian leaders on the promise to take away civic rights of a minority?
Similarly to Britain, the majority of young people in the US voted against Trump. They, like so many others around the world, will have to hope that during its term the new US government will not cause all too many major setbacks on the way to a peaceful, just and sustainable world. Denying climate change, building walls instead of addressing poverty and war as the causes of migration, sowing the seeds of hatred between religions, races and nations, and considering nuclear war a viable next step are certainly all the wrong options.
Looking back on these most recent disasters, practically all the people I know in our large global community shake their heads in disbelieve. We refuse to accept that humanity is on its way back into stone-age mentality where only our own clan matters and everybody else can go to hell. We are proud global citizens fighting for our own and future generations’ rights to live in a world where all people can lead safe, healthy, and happy lives. We urgently need to come together in a powerful global movement to defend tolerance against the intolerant, pluralism and the rule of law against authoritarianism, and our future as a global community against chauvinism and xenophobia.
Undoubtedly, 2016 was a year of significant setbacks for civil society. Let’s make 2017 the year in which we come to terms with the new situation, gather our strengths and unite in the fight for a better future.