All the world’s eyes remain transfixed on the ongoing fallout following the US elections. Many European commentators have expressed grave concern about what events “over in America” mean in terms of society’s basic humanity. But how are Europeans themselves faring when measured against that old core value? With leaders like Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban keen to seal up borders, the Turkey deal sweeping the ‘problem’ of people escaping war under the proverbial carpet and the European mainstream narrative sounding increasingly similar to what the populist right have been saying for years, you do wonder, are people in Europe responding to their own Trumps?
It’s of course important in difficult times to recognise the positives. Europe has not descended unrelentingly into xenophobia and bigotry. Across the continent people are fighting back, resisting the racist and dangerous political narrative that has seen migrants and refugees to Europe labelled as terrorists and banished beyond the great wall for the neighbours to deal with. Outbursts of resistant energy across the continent bring new hope. From #RefugeesWelcome across Europe to the Nuit Debout calling for a different kind of democracy in France. To women in Poland and Ireland fighting back against cruel proposals to ban abortion even in the worst of situations. To the new mayors of Barcelona and Madrid bringing an agenda to their cities that welcomes different kinds of people and puts people and planet at the centre.
But these are still only the seeds of a different kind of Europe that needs to grow and it will take a lot of concerted effort to see off xenophobic extremism, which is as bad as it’s been since the 1930s. It threatens every domestic social gain that has been made, it threatens international relations and justice and it threatens peace.
These are, as the Chinese curse puts it, interesting times. On December 4th Austria will rerun the presidential election giving a second chance to a far-right populist candidate who says that carrying a gun around is a ‘natural consequence’ of immigration. Some weeks back, Hungarians were asked to vote on the question ‘Do you want the EU to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly’. Only 43.9% of the population turned out, significantly less than the 50% threshold needed to validate the referendum. Orban must have been disappointed. In Germany the Alternative fuer Deutschland, another xenophobic populist party, has risen to gain representation in ten of sixteen German state parliaments. Meanwhile people in France ponder their future as Le Pen and friends get ready for elections next Spring.
Related to all of these political phenomena is social dislocation, driven by rising inequality. Inequality in Europe has been exacerbated by financialised economies and, when the crash came, by the economy being “treated” not by reining in the banks and traders, but by imposing austerity on those at the bottom and the middle, and by further “flexibilising” away the rights of people at work. And even now neither inequality nor the resulting dislocation is being addressed by governments with the seriousness required. So in the short term at least things are going to get worse.
Meanwhile European leaders seem less troubled by xenophobia than they are by any challenge to corporate power, as seen in their resolute support for the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) which enhances the largest corporations’ ability to sue governments, and the way that elites have dismissed critics of this power shift. Do they really think that more corporate power will make Europe great again? Do they really think that the social consequences of inequality will simply work themselves out? Do they not remember what happened after Europe’s last great crash?
That’s why it’s so important for citizens to come together in two inseparable causes. One, cultural solidarity between “Others” – between ethnic groups, and between faith groups, not only rejecting hate but actively cultivating the values of multiculturalism, respect and love; and two, economic solidarity so that the gap between the prosperous and the left out is narrowed, opportunities spread, and risks reduced.
There are also two messages for Europe’s political leaders. The first one is about what they need to tackle. Europe’s history shows that when politicians fail to tackle inequality, they create the space for hate. We face less a crisis of migration than a crisis of solidarity. Too many in Europe have felt discarded, and this creates an opportunity for racists to blame it on others. And too many have been told, even by “respectable” politicians, that the fracturing of public services has been caused by outsiders, instead of hearing a plan for how they will be repaired. Merely “managing” the crisis is no longer an option. Tackling inequality and building solidarity must be at the centre of policy making in order to rebuild Europe.
The second message for Europe’s political leaders is about who they need to hang out with. Now is the moment for them to break from just accepting and aligning with the voices of fear and hate in the naïve hope that pandering to fascists will tame them, and instead to join those seeds of a renewed Europe that are resisting a racist, xenophobic narrative and proposing an alternative that is based on the best traditions of Europe: solidarity, rights, equality, justice, inclusion. Their message: “Wanted: European leaders with the courage and conviction to hang out with the solidarity and rights gang, not hate and fear gang. Leaders who their own grandchildren will be proud of. Apply within …”
Laura Sullivan is ActionAid Europe & Americas Director. Ben Phillips is ActionAid Campaigns & Policy Director.
This blog is the eighth in our series on the future of civic space. Do you want to help secure the rights of citizens across the globe? Sign the Civic Charter today!