25th Feb 2024


The dangerous decline in the EU's 'moral compass'

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European Union policymakers are proud of their "strategic compass" to boost the bloc's defence and security.

The rapid and dangerous decline in the EU's once-impressive moral compass needs similarly urgent attention.

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  • The next EU commissioner for equality must also be a vice president of the European Commission, with a powerful mandate to ensure that the EU and all member states work together to fight racism, including on issues related to migration

The EU's new military swagger and solidarity for Ukraine are certainly important for the security of Europe.

Once decried as an allegedly listless soft power, the EU now takes pride in providing all kinds of military assistance to Ukraine. Increased spending on defence is a top priority.

Ambitions are high, with the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell insisting that Europeans are poised to become "reliable global security providers" … well, just about anywhere in the world.

The rush to fulfil the EU's newly-minted manifest destiny is impressive.

But it cannot hide — or excuse — the EU's parallel disregard for the human rights of millions of black and brown Europeans as well as of thousands of racialised refugees and migrants.

Fortress Europe policies, which include illegal pushbacks and also the allegedly deliberate sinking of a refugee ship by coast guards, make a mockery of the EU's claim to be a Union of Values.

Persistent racism and discrimination — including police brutality — against Europeans of colour are also too widespread and too frequent to be ignored.

The loss of Europe's moral compass gets little attention.

Yet history will not be kind to those who choose short term political gain over morality, compassion and yes, even kindness.

It's a strange Europe where harshness and cruelty towards the world's weakest and most vulnerable people is seen as a strength.

Where systemic racism, police violence and institutionalised discrimination prevail despite the EU's human rights obligations enshrined in multiple European and international conventions.

Where EU policymakers are constantly — and rightly — berating other governments on their violations yet fail to comment or even discuss repeated breaches of the same norms by their own member states.

And where the EU talks of promoting a "European Way of Life" even as emboldened far-right parties march into governments, are shamelessly courted by the traditional centre-right — including in the European Parliament — and where the populists' no-holds-barred xenophobic agenda becomes the inspiration for numerous EU policies.

Over the years, EU leaders have become skilled practitioners in denial and selective outrage.

The most recent refugee ship disaster off the coast of Greece — probably the worst ever tragedy in the Mediterranean — would once have sparked serious soul-searching and reflection.

No longer.

After the initial outrage — and despite reminders by the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency of EU obligations to protect the right to life and prevent deaths at sea — deaths of refugees are quickly brushed aside with bland expressions of regret.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and others have put the blame on ruthless people smugglers. Yet legal EU pathways are unavailable to most non-Ukrainians fleeing war and conflict.

Fortress Europe is protected by so-called 'technical obstacles' including border walls, surveillance technologies, and increasingly sophistical aerial surveillance. Volunteers and humanitarians working on rescuing refugees in distress face increasing hostility and court cases.

Delays in EU rescue operations in the Mediterranean have become strategic — and deliberate — elements in the current system of European migration governance. Time is being "weaponised" says Maurice Stierl, researcher at Osnabruck University's Institute for Migration Research.

Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe's fearless commissioner for human rights, has warned of the EU's "alarming level of tolerance to serious human-rights violations" of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.

The violations are "now so frequent that they hardly register in the public consciousness," she says.

A similar public numbness is in evidence when it comes to the failure to create a truly inclusive Europe.

The EU Fundamental Rights Agency has repeatedly warned that ethnic minorities in Europe frequently experience racist harassment and violence, including at the hands of the police.

Yet the killing by police in Nanterre of Nahel Merzouk, a young Frenchman of colour, did not prompt a genuine nationwide — or Europe-wide — reflection on "deep racism" in policing in France, as suggested by the United Nations.

Instead, as riots protesting the killing erupted in France, Nahel's death was rapidly overshadowed by even more police brutality and toxic victim-shaming.

It could get worse.

The far-right's xenophobic agenda-setting discourse is likely to be amplified even further ahead of elections to the European Parliament next June.

Urgent action must therefore be taken now to ensure that building a Union of Equality is a priority, not a footnote in Europe's political programme.

The next EU commissioner for equality must also be a vice president of the European Commission, with a powerful mandate to ensure that the EU and all member states work together to fight racism, including on issues related to migration.

Progressive members of the European Parliament must become more vocal and persistent in demanding more accountability from EU leaders on racism and on issues like funding for Tunisia and other foreign governments in the name of migration management.

Building an inclusive Europe and changing Eurocentric "Brussels So White" mindsets cannot be left to a few organisations and even fewer individuals.

It requires courage, collective mobilisation and public action. Above all it demands compassionate leadership because as Manga artist Takehiko Inoue points out: the strong are always kind.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project. Shada recently won the Catalonia European Journalist Association's prestigious Career Award 2023 for her work on EU affairs and focus on building an inclusive Union of Equality.


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

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