Sunday

21st Apr 2019

Opinion

Europe’s values vacuum

  • Where certain political leaders have failed to take positive action on the migrant crisis, European citizens have stepped in to show their humanity (Photo: iom.int)

On the same day that haunting images of a three-year-old boy washed ashore on a Turkish beach galloped across social media, and as thousands of desperate refugees squeezed on to trains in Budapest, the European Central Bank installed a sculpture called “gravity and growth” in front of its Frankfurt headquarters.

The artwork is one of three that will grace the ECB skyscraper, at a cost to taxpayers of €1.25 million.

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According to Benoit Cœure, ECB executive board member and chair of the jury that selected the artwork, the sculpture of a tree by Giuseppe Penone “conveys a sense of stability and growth and is rooted in the humanist values of Europe in the most beautiful way.”

I have some advice for Monsieur Cœure - go to Andalucía or Athens and try to convince the young people there, half of whom are unemployed, that the EU is about “stability and growth.”

Or go to the wretched refugee camps of Calais, Kos or Lampedusa and try to persuade the tens of thousands stuck in limbo there of Europe’s “humanist values.”

If Cœure hasn’t got time to visit such far-flung places, he could just stroll down to Frankfurt hauptbahnhof and listen to the tales of refugees who, having fled war, poverty and persecution in countries like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, found themselves beaten by policemen in Greece, shot at by border guards in Macedonia, extorted by officials in Serbia and treated like cattle in Hungary.

Cœure isn’t the only one mouthing platitudes about European values.

As the finishing touches were being put on a 175km razor-wire fence on Hungary’s border with Serbia, premier Viktor Orban was warning how "Europe's Christian culture is barely in a position to uphold Europe's own Christian values."

Forget for a moment that Europe’s values were as much, if not more, forged by Islamic, Greek and Roman civilization and Enlightenment thought as Christianity. And ignore the fact that Hungary is one of the most secular countries on a continent that has largely lost its religion. The real question is, what Christian values is Orban talking about?

Turning your back on those in need of help? If so, it is obviously time Orban re-read “The parable of the Good Samaritan,” with its exhortation to aide those in distress and “love thy neighbour as thyself.”

“The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities,” says article 2 of the EU treaty.

It is difficult to grasp how refusing to accept Muslim refugees on account of their religious beliefs – as Hungary and Slovakia have essentially done – chimes with these values. Likewise, it is hard to see how tattooing numbers on the arms of refugees, as Czech authorities did, respects human dignity, or how corralling Roma communities in ghettoes ensures equality for minorities.

Instead of upholding European values, Orban openly flouts them.

In a speech last year, he praised “illiberal democracies” like Russia and China. And as a result of some of Europe’s most draconian media restrictions, Hungary has fallen 45 places in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index in just three years and is now ranked 64th out of 180 countries.

Values matter because they are the glue that binds countries and peoples together. They help define what a society stands for and against. And, in the EU’s case, they are legally-binding rights, not political pieties.

According to Article 2 of the treaty the EU is “a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.” Fine words, but of little consolation to Greeks wondering what European solidarity really means as they grapple with an economic meltdown, a social calamity and now an unprecedented refugee crisis.

Nor are they any comfort to the millions of Muslims and Jews in Europe who face discrimination on a daily basis.

“Words are no longer enough in this matter,” European Council President Donald Tusk told EU ambassadors last week. “We need to deliver.” At present, with the exception of Germany and Austria, the Union and its member states are clearly not delivering.

Indeed, with Europe facing its biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, the EU has been virtually invisible, paralysed by divisions, hampered by half-baked policies and - Merkel apart - incapacitated by the moral and political bankruptcy of its leaders.

EU citizens fill the vacuum

The only consolation is that the people of western Europe have filled the vacuum, greeting refugees arriving at train stations in Austria and Germany with smiles and gifts, sending convoys of cars to pick-up those left behind in Hungary and organising makeshift refugee camps in cities like Brussels and Munich.

As one Austrian activist told the BBC: “Politics has failed, so we have to do something.”

Europe’s inability to translate its values into deeds has potentially catastrophic consequences - not just for the hundreds of thousands of refugees that desperately need our help, but also for the EU’s very existence.

Because when fundamental values are flouted with impunity by one member, as is the case with Hungary, they cease to have meaning for all members.

When freedom, democracy and the rule of law are extolled but not upheld or defended, the enemies of those values - like Russia and China - are strengthened.

And when a gaping chasm opens up between the lofty ideals mouthed by EU leaders and the grubby reality they preside over, those rulers start to resemble “The Hollow Men” in T.S. Eliot’s poem: “Our dried voices, when we whisper together are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or rats’ feet over broken glass in our dry cellar. Shape without form, shade without colour, paralysed force, gesture without motion.”

Gareth Harding is managing director of Clear Europe, a communications company. He also runs the Missouri School of Journalism's Brussels programme. Follow him on Twitter @garethharding

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