Europe's year of change: Strength in diversity
Combatting populism is a key priority for members of Europe’s civil society, writes Arno Metzler.
This is an important year for the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). As we celebrate 60 years since its creation in May 1958, we understandably reflect on what European civil society has jointly achieved. Yet we must also reflect on the challenges that lie ahead and the role we can play in shaping the Europe of tomorrow. There are indeed many challenges on Europe’s horizon.
Between the negotiations on the new EU multiannual financial framework (MFF), the European Parliament elections, the final phase of the Brexit negotiations and a new European Commission, there will be a great deal of turbulence over the next two years. As the philosopher Emmanuel Kant said, “The only thing permanent is change”.
Change has begun first and foremost within our group, which has changed its name from ‘Group III’ to the ‘Diversity Europe group’. What remains is the expertise, energy, creativity and dedication of our members, who will continue to innovate, and drive new ideas and policy work within our group, the EESC and the EU.
We will continue working together to re-energise Europe and to use our influence to disseminate the benefits of EU membership. For as much as the EU needs our expertise, the EU also needs our engagement to provide transparency and credibility to the European project.
I am above all a Europhile. I deeply believe in the values of the EU and in its benefits as a complementary layer of governance and identity. The Union not only inherited, but also embraced the democratic values of ancient Greece.
It is not by chance that French President Emmanuel Macron gave his speech outlining the future of Europe at the hill of Pnyx in Athens in September 2017. It is in this ancient site that democracy first flourished. However, democracy also comes with personal responsibilities.
I believe that this particularly applies to representatives of organised European civil society. I also believe that our principal mission should be to take initiatives, to be proactive, rather than reactive. For this reason, my presidency will have one horizontal priority: combatting prejudice and populism through responsibility and diversity. What do I mean?
First, I Consider that we all have a personal responsibility to connect the ‘Brussels bubble’ more effectively with those organisations that EESC members represent. This should be our first priority.
It is our responsibility to actively communicate on Europe to our national organisations, to persuade national civil society and political authorities of the added value, opportunities and benefits of the EU.
Given increasing Euroscepticism, illiberalism and populism, I believe that a great deal more of our energy must be focused on ‘selling’ Europe and its values of tolerance, plurality and inclusion to the national level, at home. Put simply, Europe is everybody’s responsibility.
We, as members of the EESC, have a dual responsibility; to step up our activities linking the European and the national levels, strengthening national and European networks and to work more closely together.
This brings me to the second priority for the first part of my mandate: combatting populism. This is clearly on the rise, as seen from the recent elections in Hungary, Italy, Austria and Germany.
Our group has already scheduled a conference in October in Austria on populism, which will be preceded by the publication of study on the rise of populism in non-metropolitan areas. We will examine at how and when civil society organisations are able or unable to avert the rise of populism in periphery areas.
Regrettably, the populist vote - left or right wing - within EU member states has increased from an average of 8.5 per cent in 2000 to more than 24 per cent at its current peak. Moreover, the triangular relationship between the people, the elite and others (foreigners, immigrants, etc.) is becoming dangerously pervasive and antagonistic within our societies.
Within this context, it is very difficult for the European institutions to assert values that have been ignored by citizens in democratic elections in member states. Undoubtedly, the fight against populism needs to be at national level and supported by the maximum number of European citizens.
My third priority will involve combatting prejudice and promoting diversity through education. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”.
Undoubtedly, we should devote greater energy to turning children into European citizens, through civic education. But we must also encourage our youth to become partners in change. Taking the lead in embracing diversity, inclusiveness and tolerance within our societies, should all be sources of pride, not of hate and conflict.
The same applies to our group: our diversity is truly our strength and richness. For this reason, I proposed changing the name of our group to ‘Diversity Europe’. But the promotion of diversity and tolerance will also come into the thematic work of our group over the coming months, through a study on prejudice in schools.
I appeal to European civil society to remain positive, constructive and cooperative. We must jointly shape European challenges into opportunities for a more active and effective EU. Tomorrow begins today.
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