Tragedies can either tear societies apart or bring them closer together. At times when divinity is employed to justify heinous crimes against innocent people, the choice is left to mortals. Should the response be vengeful, or should it be reflective and measured, balancing between the need for punishment and preventing further bloodshed, with the need to maintain core values and beliefs? The recent terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris and Bamako are mind-boggling. What are their larger meaning for humankind?
Last week’s coordinated carnage in Paris caught the European Union (EU) in the midst of a soul-searching period. The alliance is pondering the future of this post-World War II political-economic experiment. The continent is grappling with a range of disagreements, including the consequences of its rapid expansion, migration, social cohesion, the merits of monetary union, and developing a semblance of a unified foreign policy.
There is profound discord between those who want closer union, resulting in a United States of Europe, and those who aspire either to maintain the current union or roll back some of its powers to member states. The fear of militancy and bloodshed in the streets of Europe challenges the foundations of the EU, and touches upon many of these issues.
Freedom of movement
Nothing can hand a greater victory to those who attack innocent civilians than turning our societies into Orwellian ones.Yossi Mekelberg
From the Schuman Declaration in 1950 through decades of agreements, the principal anchor of peace, security and improving human conditions was continental cooperation through almost total freedom of movement. Peace and continuous prosperity since 1945 have been attributed to enabling people, goods and capital to move freely between EU member states.
Yet when even a minute number of those who move freely are terrorists, the goods that cross borders are Kalashnikovs, or the money is for sponsoring the killing of innocents, then the foundations of the union are shaken. They pose profound questions to those who are ravaged by genuine fear in the face of horrific scenes such as those witnessed in Paris, as much as to those who have never believed in the merit of a united Europe.
The extreme right exploits the situation to resist a multicultural, liberal and tolerant continent, migration from within member states, and above all from other parts of the world. Often this sentiment is mixed with generic xenophobia, and more specifically with Islamophobia.
The EU, both as an ideal and reality, has had to endure scepticism at every stage of its evolution. Despite this, it has provided its citizens with the longest period of peace for centuries, as well economic, cultural and social prosperity. This arrangement, however, is not without obvious shortcomings.
The cross-fertilization that resulted from freedom of movement enriched Europe beyond what its founders could have ever envisaged. Nevertheless, in the almost unrestrained drive to remove physical borders, psychological ones have not been addressed with the same rigour and attention.
Fear and suspicion of the ‘other,’ whoever she or he may be, are still rife across the continent. Confronting a tiny bunch of terrorists and their sympathizers, who represent a very extreme and distorted version of Islam, just adds a different twist to it.
Britain, for instance, is renegotiating its EU membership terms, mainly to control its border from immigration from Poland, Bulgaria and Romania as much as from outside Europe. Tragically, the violence that Paris encountered - and before this London and Madrid - have given traction to those who are die-hard opponents of the multiculturalism formed by migration. They abhor the idea of a supranational Europe that reduces the powers of national governments.
A hasty response to the fear of terrorism may jeopardize one of the most daring and successful efforts in human history to overcome major political, historical, economic and ethnic differences. While recognizing the EU’s deficiencies and limitations, it must be recognized that it introduced a new international political-economic organization in which the the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.
In addressing the need to ensure the safety of European citizens, their civil liberties may fall victim to encroachment by security services. Americans faced such an assault on their liberties following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Europeans experienced this to a lesser degree in recent years as a response to terrorism.
Nothing can hand a greater victory to those who attack innocent civilians than turning our societies into Orwellian ones. Societies in which no one trusts one another, and governments are allowed to intrude into everyone’s private lives and violate basic rights, end either in anarchy or authoritarianism.
Those who spread fear and hatred in Europe would like it to become a religious-ideological war. It would be the greatest of follies to hand them this victory. It is a struggle between those who would like to embrace tolerance, mutual respect and coexistence, and those who would like to create divisions, and spread hatred and violence.
Addressing the challenges that lie ahead is complex. It requires a more resolute EU that collaborates better on sharing intelligence and counter-terrorism, but also re-embraces its basic human values. No solution can be satisfactory unless all EU citizens are valued and integrated without losing their identity or civil liberties.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.
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