28th Feb 2024


Davos waffle doesn't help a scarred and splintered world

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I flew to Karachi at the end of December 2023, still unable to put my head around the EU's collective indifference to and complicity in Israel's no-holds-barred devastation of Gaza and violent settlement policy in the West Bank.

I was hoping that two and a half weeks away from the Brussels Bubble would provide some relief, perhaps even a much-needed sign that Europe still mattered in a scarred and shattered world.

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  • 'One of Pakistan's top business leaders tells me that while the EU single market is still important, Europe's political standing is "at zero" because of its passive stance over the war in Gaza and von der Leyen's "full-hearted" support for Israel'

Instead, geopolitics in all its egregious and ubiquitous cruelty, followed me everywhere.

As Israel killed, maimed and tortured Palestinians in collective punishment for last year's horrific 7 October Hamas attack — and only a few EU states called out Israel in any meaningful way — my role as a Brussels-based EU watcher became a lightning rod for just about everyone I met: fellow travelers, diplomats and officials, business leaders, students as well family, friends and colleagues.

EU policymakers who still want to engage with a world outside their soothing Western comfort zone may be interested in some of the uncomfortable truths I gleaned through often intense and heated conversations.

As I boarded the Turkish Airlines flight from Brussels to Istanbul, a fellow passenger from Miami on his way to attend a nephew's wedding in Istanbul, confided his moral dilemma.

Given US president Joe Biden's undeterred support for Israel, how could he as a Muslim cast his ballot — once again — for the incumbent?

"My family says no Muslim American should vote for Biden," he said. "But how can I vote for a very openly-racist Donald Trump?"

At the sprawling Kemal Ataturk airport, a young Dutch Moroccan businessman on his way to Dubai says he is under instructions from his pregnant wife to see if they can move there from Rotterdam.

"She says there's no way we can live in Geert Wilder's Netherlands," he says.

I board my plane for Karachi, confident that since both the city and Pakistan are such a mess and elections are set for early February, the focus would be on domestic challenges, not geopolitics.

No such luck. Amid the talk of domestic failings, there are constant references to America, (again) Wilders and (believe it or not) EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

The focus on America is hardly surprising. Pakistan's US-friendly army is accused of human rights violations as it fights a longstanding insurgency in Balochistan, the vast and resource rich Pakistani province, which neighbours Iran.

Most importantly, the popular and populist former prime minister Imran Khan, currently in prison, has blamed America for his woes, an argument that has wide-spread public support.

Luckily, the EU is accused of no such sins.

But one of the country's top business leaders tells me that while the EU single market is still important, Europe's political standing is "at zero" because of its passive stance over the war in Gaza and von der Leyen's "full-hearted" support for Israel.

I notice that European products have all but disappeared from local supermarkets, replaced by goodies made in Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Boutiques sell Chinese textiles and fabrics.

Everyone says they no longer watch CNN or BBC because of the channels' alleged pro-Israel bias but Al Jazeera resilient reporters have become household names.

Contradicting conventional Western thinking that the Global South is falling prey to Russian and Chinese propaganda, nobody seems interested in watching RT or CGTN.

I hear repeatedly that Europe's collective refusal to try and stop Israel's brutal war against Hamas, while at the same time condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine, has blighted its standing across the Global South.

"This is going to stick whatever happens next," warns a seasoned journalist friend.

As the US and UK launch strikes on Yemen and the EU says it plans to send at least three warships to the Red Sea by March to stop Houthi attacks on commercial vessels, there is more talk of Western hypocrisy and double standards.

Friends watching Al Jazeera's live streaming of South Africa's legal case of genocide against Israel, ask why no European TV channel is showing the proceedings and why Europe is not willing to back Pretoria's initiative. "It looks like a clear question of white vs black", says a visiting American friend.

I come back home to Brussels, more convinced than ever that we live in an irrevocably splintered world.

Here, the focus remains on whether Biden or Donald Trump will prevail in the upcoming November elections and what that means for the "future of Europe".

Any attempt to draw attention to the EU's possibly permanent reputational loss in other parts of the world is shrugged off as a minor, passing concern.

In this make-believe world, nothing has changed and the West still calls the shots — often literally.

The fantasy is bolstered by the proliferation of Davos-like panel discussions and self-soothing narratives about "recreating trust".

I wish it were that easy. The harsh truth is that no amount of self-righteous waffle at Davos can accurately reflect — or reconnect — today's widely divergent alternative realities between a complacent West and a self-confident and assertive Global South.

In the end, I found joy with friends and family in Karachi. There was also plenty of evidence that the EU still matters — but regretfully for all the wrong reasons.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an EUobserver columnist, and independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project. She has recently won the European Woman in Media award and the Media Career Award 2023 for her outstanding work and powerful voice 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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