THE BLOG

A 'European Spring' Has Sprung

15/06/2017 12:32
Youssef Boudlal / Reuters

A wind of change is sweeping through the European Union. 2016 and 2017 will go down in the history books as years of unprecedented turmoil. A steep increase in nationalism, but referendums aside, no breakthrough to mainstream politics in Europe. Are we now witnessing the first signs of renewal in the form of a "European spring"? After years marked by tensions and discontent, there is a breeze of optimism, expectation and hope in the air.

Who did not feel a twinge of excitement when President Macron squared up to Trump and lambasted Vladimir Putin in front of the world's media for enabling the persecution and murder of gay men in Chechnya? Two domineering macho leaders were confronted and shown up by a self-confident and proud European, who was not afraid to speak truth to power.

Who is not encouraged by the fact that, despite a wretched campaign of vilification by the global alt-right movement and a concerted cyber-campaign directed by a Kremlin, the majority of German people now believe Angela Merkel was right to open Germany's doors to refugees from the Syrian war, when no other country dared to?

We were told by the likes of Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen that these values no longer reflected the views of the majority of "ordinary people". The values of tolerance, respect and dignity are virtues of the ruling liberal elite, imposed upon the people and incompatible with the need for national security and pride in one's national identity.

Recent months have shown this trade off to be corrupt. The European Union will instead be made great once again on the foundations of inclusiveness, freedom and individual liberty. Recent election campaigns in the Netherlands and France have focused not just on traditional material issues of jobs and social security and the size of the state but as much on values, culture and identity. The world order is changing at breath-taking speed - many people are worried and anxious about a perceived loss of identity and community.

Nationalist parties have exploited people's anxieties and amplified them by sowing distrust, hatred and fear, or by promising to return to an imaginary and rose-tinted past. Their promises are false. But we have to recognise that the response of liberals to the clear questions of values, identity and culture has been inadequate.

The European Union is a deeply political union, but most politicians are wary of explaining this to their voters. They prefer to present the European Union as a technocratic entity, which can be summed up in terms of economic benefits or costs, because this is more convenient in the short term. But we should not give nationalists a monopoly over the definition of our shared values and our identity. We should not be shy about our common European identity.

Yes, in these times of great uncertainty, insecurity and societal turbulence, it is tempting for politicians to choose not to defend our shared values, it takes bravery and leadership. Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel understand that we have not defined our shared values for fair weather conditions only. It is when conditions are rough, that our convictions are put to the test.

The European Union is not only an economic powerhouse, it still has great moral authority in the world. We can be proud our values have inspired many around the world. Many people dream of living in the kind of free, fair, stable and democratic society we have built in Europe. So much so that others see our values as a threat, something they seek to destroy.

Populist parties worldwide have an agenda based on nationalism, xenophobia, homophobia, and sexism. They agitate against secularism and parliamentary democracy. And above all, they reject pluralism. They claim there is one people, one voice, one truth only. But recent elections have proven them wrong. Europeans will not be reduced to a one-dimensional caricature. The reality is that the true soul of Europe lies in its diversity, and the freedom to choose what you want to believe and who you are.

Democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights are not just ideals, they are essential for the functioning of the European Union in all its policy areas. Without democracy, our public authorities would lack the legitimacy needed to make good public policy. Social justice is a pre-condition for a stable climate for investment and development. Respect for fundamental rights is vital for common migration policies and police co-operation. The rule of law is absolutely essential for the internal market and investor confidence. Our common standards on democracy, the rule of law and human rights must be the corner stones of our foreign and security policies. If the European spring is to bloom, it is time for European leaders to proudly and energetically put liberal democratic values first.

Sophie in't Veld is a Member of the European Parliament representing the Dutch social liberal party Democrats 66. In 't Veld is 1st vice-president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).

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