Thursday

21st Jan 2021

Column

In a messy world, EU's clout depends on respecting values

Whether swooning over US president-elect Joe Biden, scolding Russia and Turkey or chastising China, EU leaders love the thrill of the global stage.

That is no surprise: international celebrity can be addictive. And there is much to admire in the EU's quest to act as the world's conscience.

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  • 'The budgetary fudge opens the EU to charges of double standards and hypocrisy which Moscow, Ankara and Beijing will undoubtedly seize upon. It also creates an alarming space for future misdemeanours by Europe's non-democrats'

Europe's support is crucial for human rights defenders and pro-democracy advocates. In a messy, pandemic-racked and rudderless world, Europe's normative power certainly matters.

But it would matter more if EU leaders practiced at home what they preach to others.

The EU's record so far? Patchy at best.

The recent face-saving compromise on the rule-of-law conditionality which ended the Hungarian-Polish blockade of the EU €1.8 trillion budget deal is quite rightly held up as a glaring example of EU governments' penchant for playing fast and loose with fundamental rights.

The budgetary fudge opens the EU to charges of double standards and hypocrisy which Moscow, Ankara and Beijing will undoubtedly seize upon. It also creates an alarming space for future misdemeanours by Europe's non-democrats.

Let's not be blinded by the headlines, however. EU norms and standards are being chiseled away in myriad other ways which, although largely unnoticed, deserve urgent attention and strong call-outs.

Populists like Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders are suspiciously quiet at the moment. But with so many elected EU governments doing their bidding, no questions asked, why would they speak up?

Across Europe, there are pushbacks against women, LGBTIQ communities and migrants. EU agencies and pro-democracy civil society organisations have long tried to alert European governments and institutions to the dangers of rising racism and violence against Jews, Muslims, Roma and Europeans of colour.

They also point to the drip-drip damage being wreaked by government attacks on the judiciary and the independent media.

There is no dearth of warnings that prejudice, discrimination and racism are chipping away at the EU's foundations and its commitment to diversity and inclusion.

The growing chasm between progressives who believe in an open and inclusive Europe and populists self-identifying as saviours of 'whiteness' and Christianity is not just par for the course or a mere manifestation of vibrant democratic debate. It is much more dangerous.

The ideological divide is smothering Europe's soul, eroding EU credibility and creating confusion about the future.

Fightback

Civil society organisations – ordinary people - are fighting back. This is not the Europe they want.

The recent abortion ban in Poland has prompted massive public protests while demonstrations against a proposed security law which would have banned recording police on active duty have forced the French government to rewrite the legislation.

Meanwhile, European non-governmental organisations are continuing to help refugees at sea despite facing criminal proceedings, vessel seizures and other restrictions.

Most significantly, through a range of initiatives, a small but influential number of European commissioners is doubling down on the need for equality, diversity and inclusion.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen may have started off 2020 by lauding Greece for building a "shield" against migrants - but by summer this year she was calling out racism, and insisting that "migration has always been a fact for Europe and always will be."

Reacting to the Black Lives Matter movement that spread across Europe in May and June, von der Leyen spearheaded the first-ever debate on racism at the European Commission.

A new Action Plan to tackle systemic racism, unconscious bias and transform #BrusselsSoWhite into a more diverse and inclusive space was quickly drafted and given the official go-ahead.

Through the year, the commission has unveiled initiatives to ensure gender equality, step up Roma inclusion and promote LGTBIQ rights.

There have been proposals for redesigning Fortress Europe through a new "migration pact", as well as fresh ideas for easing integration for non-white Europeans and tackling hate speech on social platforms. Frontex is being taken to task for its alleged illegal pushbacks against migrants.

And while French president Emmanuel Macron's crackdown on "Islamist separatism" many not have sparked any EU-wide comments, last week's European Council conclusions on fighting radicalisation, terrorism and violent extremism avoided references to any specific ideology or religion.

Too many loopholes remain, however.

Implementation of the Anti-Racism Action Plan is painfully slow, dependent on policies adopted by national governments as well as the role and influence of the yet-to-be-appointed EU "anti-racism coordinator".

Measures to ensure more diversity in EU recruitment policies hinge on how quickly – or slowly – follow-up measures are taken by EU institutions' human resource departments.

The migration pact has run into serious difficulties which the upcoming Portuguese EU presidency may or may not succeed in sorting out.

Tackling Europe's damaging split over core values is a collective responsibility. It cannot be left to one government or institution or to a single leader.

The next time EU leaders decide to speak the language of power, they should remember: Europe's geopolitical relevance hinges on actions, not words. And success abroad is conditional on what happens here at home in Europe.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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