Elżbieta Bieńkowska is the European Commissioner for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs
Rudolf Wacker’s “Cracked Doll’s Head” was one of the most striking pictures at the “Beyond Klimt. New Horizons in Central Europe (1914-1938)” exhibit recently displayed at Brussels’ Bozar art centre. For the Austrian artist, the doll’s cracked face portrayed the symptoms of disintegrating societies in Europe of the late 1930s, which few at that time had recognised as being in a fragile condition.
As those societies were on the verge of breaking into pieces, too few noticed that Europe was abandoning some of its most important principles which would lead Europe into its biggest catastrophe – World War II and the horrors of Holocaust. While Europeans today are not in such a vulnerable position, we are in some kind of crisis as anti-Semitism is back on the rise in Europe, along with other political phobias. From this, we must conclude that our value system is in distress.
European integration, at its core, was a peace project based on the memory of WWII and was founded to avoid repeating the crimes and degeneracy that epitomised the conflict. Yet, over time, only few people remember the Holocaust and WWII as a personal experience. Given the distance of the war, we must keep its remembrance vivid and alive, instead of letting it decay as a distant event known only in history books.
Today, Europe is faced with the challenge of finding an updated, more modern response to its citizens' dissatisfaction
The memory of WWII has only been ‘unfrozen’ in the last few decades, when sharp divisions between perpetrating nations and their victims became more nuance. A small room in the House of European History in Brussels, devoted to the attitude towards the Holocaust of nations conquered by Nazi Germany, has triggered intense emotions and debates. Europe must remain conscious of the fact that divisive narratives in politics – such as those often favoured by populists – start off as innocent opinions on a variety of topics, but can gradually degenerate into dangerous ideologies.
We cannot cover our eyes and refrain from engaging in these painful historical discussions, nor can we stop reminding people of how much pain and damage anti-Semitism has caused. It is our shared duty to ensure that future generations keep learning from the mistakes of their predecessors. If Europeans want to safeguard the freedom of academia, press and dissent that define their democracies, then the EU and national governments must raise awareness of and promote educate about hostility and xenophobia openly.
In order to ensure this, the EU combats the barriers that some would like to impose on the freedom of research centres, museums and universities. Unfortunately, Europe is currently facing many national developments which seek to undermine the values of an open society.
Obviously, education and confronting the past is not enough. One of the lessons Europe learned from the 20th century is that the will of the majority must also be complemented by respect for human rights and the rule of law. These values act as a backstop against possible temptations of majorities to establish a dictatorship or to oppress minorities.
The EU must not give up on defending any of the three pillars of Western societies: democracy, human rights and the rule of law. If necessary, the EU has to be ruthless in constraining the revival of regimes which seek to provide room for discrimination. It must seek stronger enforcement of laws aimed against hate speech, the promotion of violence, and racism. The rule of law is not an empty slogan, it is the foundation upon which we can build an equal and modern society in Europe.
The narratives upon which the European value system was built are now under attack. Populists keep fighting “against the elites”, “against the establishment”, and also against “political correctness” – that is to say, against decency in language, politics, and culture. Populists claim that the real purpose of “political correctness” is to protect the interests of the old elite. However, Europeans must stay open-minded in order to ensure a high quality of life and freedom for all Europeans, not distinguishing between provenance, gender, religion, skin colour or sexual orientation. One of the aims of what they call "political correctness" is to protect European values – to which populists stand in opposition.
The EU can only oppose this trend by taking up proverbial arms against disinformation, fake news, corruption, shady political links and foreign meddling in politics
Unfortunately, when some Europeans buy into the populist package out of rightful indignation about issues such as corruption, social inequalities and youth unemployment, they also accept the discriminatory hatred that is contained within their platform. The builders of the welfare state, the social market economy and the European model of capitalism understood that solving urgent economic problems helps to put down toxic phenomena such as xenophobia.
Today, Europe is faced with the challenge of finding an updated, more modern response to its citizens' dissatisfaction. Meanwhile, populists are exploiting this struggle by offering a so-called ‘traditional’ path. Anger is sometimes justified, and addressing it - also at the EU level - would help to prevent people from irrational scapegoating just to have someone to blame for their own – i.e. European – problems.
At the same time, the EU has to defend itself from external ideological threats. Rightist populism does not hide its fascination for strong foreign leaders. This fact is not lost on illiberal actors in the East. Many of the populist attacks on the EU’s mainstream forces are stoked by propaganda operations from those that stand to benefit from a weakened pan-European value system.
Paradoxically, the modern extreme right – so often contaminated with anti-Semitism and, almost always, Islamophobia – looks for support from modern Russia, which has strongly linked its historical identity to the victory over fascism. The EU can only oppose this trend by taking up proverbial arms against disinformation, fake news, corruption, shady political links and foreign meddling in politics. Europe cannot afford to notice cracks in its societies, as artists displayed in Bozar did, without undertaking joint efforts to remedy them rapidly.
IMAGE CREDIT: Bigstock / Victor Huang