As a British national, living in the UK, I am witnessing some of the most turbulent, destructive and unsettling moments of my country’s political history. And not only that, but the wider European region is going through some of the most worrying times.
I first began writing this comment a few weeks back. My draft, within a few a days, was already out of date, surpassed by events and fast moving developments.
I want to deconstruct some common myths, raise some uncomfortable realities, and remind ourselves of some fundamental limits, natural and otherwise which we are already bumping up against.
First off, the myth that there can be a view from Europe. There are many, many views. There are commonalities, of course, but Europe is a patchwork of different stories. Europe comprises over 40 countries. There are 28 countries and 24 official languages in the EU alone. It demonstrates a strong diversity of histories, cultures, identities, political views, realities and priorities. And it doesn’t stop there. Our views and perspectives are also informed by our neighbours: Africa, Russia, the Middle East. What is happening, immediately beyond our borders is perhaps posing the largest tension and conflict for Europe today.
One could argue that the painful and extended efforts to fix the EU project has provided a dangerous distraction. Whether it be saving the Euro or retaining its membership, the EU at least, has neglected or simply failed to respond to critical events around us.
Turning to the UK referendum, the vote divided and split the country on a number of different lines and demographics. By region, by age, by nationality, ethnicity, class even. Based upon certain myths, lies and allegations, the vote has created a fragmented country, threatening to split up the kingdom.
The truth is however that the “Brussels” against which British voters rebelled is a bureaucracy answerable to 28 contentious governments that has never constrained British sovereignty in defense or fiscal policy, or in dealing with refugees from outside the EU. And as the Brits will soon realize to our regret, we benefited handsomely from participating in a large common market.
All that has been amply chronicled, along with the real motives behind the Leave vote: the sense among older, provincial, white voters, the ‘middle Englanders’ that they are somehow being marginalized by globalization; they had been driven by a nostalgia for a simpler and often mythical past.
Certainly, there are valid points about the European Union and about globalization to which politicians should pay heed. But that isn’t why Leave won. It won because demagogic, charlatan politicians like Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, and Boris Johnson, our newly appointed Foreign Secretary had no scruples about playing on base fears that ‘swarms’ of people of different colours and religions were threatening to overwhelm the native way of life. That is also Mr Trump’s refrain and the core message of right-wing demagogues across Europe, from Marine Le Pen in France to Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.
Ironically, after outsourcing our trade powers to Brussels for the last 43 years, the UK is now relying on the expertise of foreign trade negotiators – as Whitehall looks to recruit foreign nationals, experienced in trade negotiations, to help us. So much for ‘taking back control’!
While the UK vote has brought increased support for the EU in other parts of the region, it has also catalysed fragmentation as other EU countries seek to hold their own referendums. The Catalan government has recently intensified its war of words with Spain by vowing to use its democratic mandate to forge a long standing call for a separate Catalan state, with or without the approval of Madrid.
I could write at length about the political turmoil the EU has been plunged into via the Brexit vote, however I want to turn to immigration. An inflammatory issue that stirred up and played on emotions during the referendum and reaches the heart, and indeed the borders of Europe. It also brings into question the relationship that Europe has with the rest of the world.
The movement of people into Europe is happening on an unprecedented level since World War II. Europe has become the 21st-century destination of choice for the war-ravaged, the persecuted, the displaced, the homeless and the penniless from numerous less fortunate and less stable lands.
The International Organization for Migration estimates that over a million migrants arrived by sea in 2015, and almost 35,000 by land. And those figures are only the official records, many more arrive undetected.
Though its suffering is horrendous, Syria is but one of many disaster areas whose collective woes have led some experienced observers to assert that 2016 is already the worst year for humanitarian crises in living memory. Nearly all these crises potentially affect Europe.
Europe’s resources, capacities and attitudes are being tested, as the numbers of people, either moving through, or requesting asylum increase. So far, our response has been pitiful. Last September, Austria’s Chancellor compared Hungary’s treatment of refugees to the ordeal of Jews under the Nazis. Werner Faymann, a Social Democrat, launched a blistering attack on the handling of the migration crisis by Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister. Mr Faymann is reported to have said “Refugees put on trains in the belief they are going somewhere else entirely brings back memories of the darkest period of our continent,”
Racism and xenophobia are on the rise. In the week before and the week after the UK vote, reports to the police of racial hate crime increased by 42%, probably the highest ever recorded. Some had assumed that the Brexit vote had given them a free licence for open racism.
How secular, or mostly Christian Europe will cope with the mass migration, largely from Muslim Africa and the Middle East is now the dominant common factor at the heart of national politics across the region.
Recent horrific attacks in France and Germany also, inevitably give rise to the concern of opening our doors to potential terrorists, and creating our own ‘enemy within’.
Greece has been on the frontline of the mass movement of people. Greece, a country already on its knees economically, socially and politically, barely able to serve its own people. A country on the edge of the EU, quite literally, which has been on the receiving end of such draconian and harsh measures from Brussels, that a referendum resulted in a clear refusal to continue under the EU policies. Yet it was ignored by the governing party. And, despite the widespread suffering of its own, Greece continues to welcome the weak, vulnerable, scared and desperate, escaping some of the worst conflict zones the world has ever seen. These lands of war were, until recently, their home. To leave, with nothing, risking their lives and that of their children’s, not knowing what is ahead, or if they will ever return.
We, the Western world are guilty of the atrocities taking place in these regions. We have all, intentionally or not, assisted in creating the conditions for such dangerously unsettled and unstable parts of the world.
It is certainly grotesque that the UK, a key ally to the US in the Iraq War, and a driver of intervention in the region, now wishes to tightly limit the number refugees arriving, as a result of the conflicts. Meanwhile, Greece was a staunch opponent of the war in Iraq, yet is currently bearing the brunt of its consequences.
Poorly thought through, hawkish actions in Libya, led by French, US and British coalitions has left a country now ‘ungovernable’. To do this anywhere is reckless and foolish. But to do this on Europe’s doorstep denotes such idiocy that one wonders if the conspiracy to break Europe under further stress is so far-fetched. After all, it was not so long ago that David Cameron, as the UK Prime Minister had strenuously called for Turkey’s accession to the EU, hoping to stretch EU capacities even further, something he vehemently denied during the referendum.
There is no doubt that the numbers of people on the move today are nothing, nothing in comparison to what we face as the impacts of climate change really begin to hit.
We are only now beginning to understand how climate change will undermine some of our basic human rights, and we have yet to fully comprehend what this will mean, and the implications for what we all currently take for granted.
The organisation I work for, the World Future Council, identifies policy solutions to these challenges and helps to spread and implement them. Aware that only a rapid shift to renewable energies can address climate change, we are spreading the most effective law to achieve this – ‘feed-in-tariffs’ rewarding solar and wind energy producers, first introduced in Germany, to other countries.
In the UK, this law has increased solar PV production rapidly – although we are not a very sunny country. We are now showing policy-makers that 100% renewables is possible, taking them to places like the Spanish Canary island of El Hierro where it is already the case, and the lights haven’t gone off.
Of course, such changes require ecologically literate people and here, Europe can learn from the US. The Environmental Literacy Standards of the state of Maryland are the best worldwide, as they are a high school graduation requirement, and we are working to introduce them in Europe.
Less than a day into the job, UK Prime Minister May’s shocking decision to shut down DECC, the Department for Energy and Climate Change, brought accusations of downgrading our country’s efforts on climate change, of not taking the issue seriously. Climate has been eaten up by a newly beefed up business department, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Personally, I have never been entirely convinced by the UK government’s leadership on climate change. But in this case, climate appears to have been demoted. The move does little to reassure business, poised to invest in a renewable future, or to the broader, international community of our climate commitments, especially our COP21 pledges.
Ministries and their structures indeed shape the priorities and direction of a government, however, commitment can be demonstrated by more than just a name. Leadership from recently appointed Climate Minister Nick Hurd and the State Secretary Greg Clark can go some way in making sure climate change is elevated and hardwired into the new department. Both their records on climate are good, but it remains to be seen if they will be climate champions in the face of conflicting priorities. It has been assumed that the new department holds more power and influence than DECC, however in the face of the new Government, complete with a large number of prominent climate skeptics, it suggests we will witness a series of tug of wars.
The freeze last week, on the go ahead on the controversial Hinkley nuclear power station, at the eleventh hour, to read the small print, leads one to wonder, perhaps naively, if this presents the shift from outdated, centralised energy to distributed renewables and smart grids.
15,000 nuclear weapons are held in the arsenals of the nine nuclear-armed states. The US and Russia are responsible for 95% of those weapons, 10% of which are on what is called ‘hair-trigger alert’ – a policy left over from the Cold War, which allows these weapons to go flying within minutes of an attack being logged.
Five European states continue to host US ‘tactical nuclear weapons’. Even though every military commander agrees they serve no military purpose and can never be used, the US is about to spend $10 billion to modernise this arsenal.
The British Parliament, recently held a debate on our Trident nuclear programme. It was held thanks to outgoing Prime Minister Cameron, wishing to send a signal to the international community that we remain a player on the world stage, perversely through showcasing our stockpile of nuclear weaponry, and as well, knowing it would split the opposition, the Labour Party further still. During the debate, Prime Minister, Theresa May said she would be willing to authorise a nuclear strike that could kill 100,000 people. To gasps across the chamber, May confirmed she would be prepared to press the nuclear button if necessary as she opened the debate about whether the UK should spend up to £200bn replacing four submarines that carry nuclear warheads. “The whole point of a deterrent is that our enemies need to know that we would be prepared to use it”. These types of adversarial policies stand in the way of the unprecedented cooperation we need to tackle transnational challenges.
The World Future Council recently published a study on the Climate-Nuclear-Nexus, showing the inter-linkages between these two global security threats. Many policy-makers are very worried about this and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, based in Geneva, which brings together almost all parliamentarians in the world, asked the World Future Council to produce a handbook on exemplary nuclear disarmament policies.
Argentina’s National Programme for the Voluntary Surrender of Firearms, paved the way for a highly successful firearms and ammunition buyback and also promotes a culture of non-violence and peaceful conflict resolution. My colleague Rob van Riet brought this policy to Bosnia, a country still suffering from the animosities of the civil war 20 years ago.
The trade in weaponry, from Europe is adding to escalating conflict and wars in neighbouring countries. Since the escalation of the Syrian conflict in 2012, eight countries, including the Czech Republic and Romania have approved €1.2bn of weapons and ammunition exports to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey – key arms markets for Syria and Yemen. Eight European countries that fiercely opposed to receive refugees in the EU are the very same ones that are profiting from the war.
Allow me to turn to the obvious and uncomfortable parallels arising between the UK and the US. The UK referendum debate was based upon lies, propaganda and untruths. Tidy, appealing slogans such as ‘taking back control’ used during the referendum are being echoed in the US presidential race.
The Republican convention used the outcome of the UK vote to justify and intensify the patriotic, vitriolic fist pumping hysteria ‘to take back America’. The witch hunt on Clinton generated during those debates sat very uneasily for me. In the UK, we are still mourning the loss of one of our brightest and most inspiring political figures, Jo Cox MP, assassinated in her own constituency for her views. Some Labour MPs, particularly women, also continue to receive death threats, personal attacks and intimidation.
Trump, and many UK politicians leading the Brexit campaign have unleashed, and fuelled an almighty rage and anger based on fear. Regretfully, pandora’s box has been opened.
The fact that these fires are burning in two of the most unequal countries and societies should be no surprise. As human beings, we have deep-seated psychological responses to inequality and social hierarchy. The tendency to equate outward wealth with inner worth means that inequality colours our social perceptions. It invokes feelings of superiority and inferiority, dominance and subordination – which affect the way we relate to and treat each other. As well as health and violence, almost all the problems that are more common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies – including mental illness, drug addiction, obesity, loss of community life, imprisonment, unequal opportunities and poorer wellbeing for children. The effects are not confined to the poor. Inequality is bad for everyone. It eats away at the social fabric of the whole society.
We need to find it in ourselves to think the unthinkable. Both of the negative, as hard and uncomfortable as that may be, of some unimaginable outcomes, but of the good too, of what we can achieve, together, if we are to turn things around.
Among other deficits, our democracy has become a dictatorship of the present, with no-one representing the interests of future generations.
Our ancestors thought differently, the most famous example being the Native American principle that the impact of any decision on the 7th generation to come had to be taken into account.
My work in the World Future Council has focused on reviving this principle, by establishing guardians for future generations. Hungary established a Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations in 2007 and last year, we helped to set up a similar institution in Wales.
We have also worked since Rio 2012 to establish a UN High Commissioner for Future Generations, an initiative now being discussed at the UN High Level Political Forum.
Thanks to the internet we believe we are engaging with the world around us like never before. This could not be more true for the millennials as they feel disconnected from the democratic systems designed to service them. Yet, in reality, our worlds are shrinking into the online bubble we wish to identify ourselves with. We know the platforms we can turn to in order to validate ourselves and affirm our views. Many Britons woke up on the 24 June and did not recognise the country they lived in. The online community they depended on and fed off, served only to feed their own beliefs and value systems.
The pace of change in technology, globalization and climate has started to outrun the ability of our political systems to build the social, educational, community, workplace and political innovations needed for citizens to keep up.
“Political power in the West has been failing its own test of legitimacy and accountability since 2008 — and in its desperation has chosen to erode it further by unforgivably abdicating responsibility through the use of a referendum on the EU,” said Nader Mousavizadeh, who co-leads the London-based global consulting firm Macro Advisory Partners.
After the destruction of World War II, the EU project emerged as a force for peace, prosperity, democracy and freedom in the world. This is one of our great achievements. Rather than let it be destroyed we must use the shock of the Brexit vote to reimagine, reform, and rebuild a new Europe.
We are all, Europe. We are all, America. We are all black. We are all refugees. The challenges we face know no borders. They transcend nationality. They transcend race. They transcend age, ethnicity and they transcend political lines.
Let us think the unthinkable.