16th Apr 2024


Values? EU leaders must 'float like a butterfly, sting like a bee'

Remember the Rumble in the Jungle? As attacks on the rule of law and democratic standards multiply across Europe – and Slovenia takes over the EU presidency - defenders of EU values can learn a thing or two from Muhammad Ali's knock-out performance that fateful night in Kinshasa in 1974.

True, Ali's self-confidence, persistence and stamina were on full display. But the champ defeated the fearsome George Foreman with a few powerful, strategically-placed punches.

Read and decide

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  • Neither the Commission nor EU leaders have reacted to the Austrian government's amorphous fight against "political Islam", French president Emmanuel Macron's controversial draft 'separatism' bill, or Social Democrat-led Denmark's U-turn on Syrian refugees

No one is suggesting it is time for a physical EU-wide bust-up over rights and values. At least not just yet.

But tedious 'shoulda-coulda-woulda' conversations about what the EU really stands for have gone on for long enough. The moment calls for some strategic stinging.

The current worn-out EU script goes something like this: one or two of the group of EU rights-naysayers takes the floor at a summit to rant on a favourite topic. This could be against, inter alia, LGBTIQ rights, gender equality, Jews, Muslims, Roma, Black people and/or refugees.

Others at the gathering hang around either nodding enthusiastically or looking a tad uncomfortable. There is even some embarrassed squirming.

The headlines the next day talk menacingly of a split/divide/rift/fight over EU identity. We are told the bloc's future is in danger.

There are ominous references to EU 'culture wars' and unbridgeable differences but also some conciliatory talk of "families having to live together forever".

The more intrepid blame it all on disinformation by Russia and/or China. As tensions remain high (for another ten minutes) academics and think-tankers join the fray to speculate over whether the EU is a simple trading bloc cum money machine or whether it really should aspire to something more noble.

There is some discussion on the pros and cons, usefulness or uselessness of Article 7 in preventing democratic backsliding.

And then the storm blows over. It is back to business as usual.

Except perhaps this time.

Bumpy ride

For one, with Slovenia in the EU presidency chair until end-2021, it is going to be difficult to gloss over some member states' rather rapidly-falling democratic standards.

As Slovenian prime minister Janez Janša praises his heroes Donald Trump and Hungary's Viktor Orban, brace yourselves for an eventful six months.

Perhaps the EU's Green Deal champion Frans Timmermans may have set a trend after he refused to join a group photograph following the traditional commission-presidency get-together in Ljubljana, citing Janša's "unacceptable attack" on two Slovenian judges and two socialist MEPs.

Perhaps there will also be more confrontational exchanges of the type that enlivened the last EU summit as Orban – backed by his Slovenian best friend - attempted to defend new Hungarian legislation which the EU commission and a majority of EU leaders say is discriminatory against LGBTIQ people.

So far, so different.

Picking a fight with the obviously bigoted is the easy part, however. Those who want to live surrounded by only white, straight and mostly male Christians certainly deserve a verbal lashing and perhaps even a drastic reduction in their access to EU funds.

But it only tackles half of the problem.

The other - arguably even more dangerous – half lies hidden within the EU's value-loving 'western' countries where populist and xenophobic 'us-and-them' rhetoric is seeping into the discourse and policies of some of Europe's proud liberal democracies at startling speed.

Er, what about Austria?

Neither the commission nor EU leaders have reacted to the Austrian government's amorphous fight against "political Islam" including the launch of a much-criticised Islam Map website that shows the locations of more than 600 mosques and Muslim associations across the country and which critics fear stigmatises Islam and has already led to incidents of violence against Muslims.

The commission's silence is similarly deafening over French president Emmanuel Macron's controversial draft 'separatism' bill which human rights watchdog Amnesty International has warned uses the vague and ill-defined concept of "radical Islam" and represents a threat to the very freedoms that the French authorities claim to stand for.

And then there is the Social Democrat-led government in Denmark which has passed legislation allowing it to relocate asylum seekers to third countries outside the EU while their cases are reviewed.

This time the commission has voiced concerns that "external processing of asylum claims raises fundamental questions about both the access to asylum procedures and effective access to protection".

But as is the case over Frontex pushbacks and some EU governments' decisions to send refugees back to their home countries despite ongoing violence and wars, no real action by the EU executive is expected.

True, Ursula von der Leyen and her team must be commended for releasing several important pro-equity strategies, including an ambitious anti-racism action plan.

But by allowing, either tacitly or deliberately, a selective outrage over values and an EU-wide ranking of rights or degrees of discrimination, the Commission and EU states are undermining their commitment to building a true Union of Equality.

Author bio

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


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


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