woensdag, mei 11, 2022

Europe’s welcoming hand

If Putin had aimed to undermine Europe’s unity with his unprovoked attack on Ukraine, then he seems unsuccessful so far. If we believed that a strong and unified Europe after Brexit was a thing of the past, then it is now time to reconsider that belief. After all, European solidarity seems strong in these troubling times of war, prompting renewed plans for military rearmament and a widespread willingness to accommodate Ukrainian refugees. And that is a good thing. As Matthew Neuhaus, Australian ambassador to the Netherlands, who recently visited Initiatives of Change, says: ‘The European Union is the best tool for peace that we have. It must not fail.’

It begs the question: how have we then arrived at, possibly, the brink of another European war? Who is on the receiving end of the European Union’s valuable brand of peacebuilding? How do our views on Western and non-Western refugees relate to each other? Which political choices are made based on these views? And what does this tell us about the future of Europe? To answer these questions, we need to take a critical look at the sentiments that have shaped our refugee policies. Here I am not only talking about political choices, but also about the general public’s attitudes towards refugees and these refugee policies.

The media and political discourse play an important role in shaping these attitudes. Looking at our current refugee crisis, we observe a widespread and generally accepted belief that we must warmly and generously receive Ukrainian refugees. In media and political discourse, Ukraine is included as part of the brotherhood and kinship that unites Europe. The Ukrainians are referred to as ‘fellow Europeans who share our Western norms and values’ and ‘have blond hair and blue eyes, just like us’. This rhetoric, based on self-identification, is a powerful tool as it stimulates the public’s willingness and mental capacity to aid refugees.  

It was quite a different situation during the Syrian refugee crisis. While the war in Ukraine inspires a sense of European unity and solidarity, the crisis in the Middle East led to deep divisions among European nations and Europeans themselves. Populists were able to capitalise on anti-Islamic and anti-immigration sentiments in society. In their messages, they emphasised how ‘foreign’ the Syrian refugees were: non-Western, non-European, non-Christian.

These are characterisations that alienate the Syrian refugees from the public. In populist circles, such rhetoric is deliberately used to undermine the public’s willingness and mental capacity to accommodate refugees. That is why some interpret Brexit as the result of right-populist Euroscepticism and as a protest against immigration, including the arrival of refugees.

Recently columnist Sander Schimmelpenninck called for moral rearmament in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, referring to the roots of Moral Rearmament, now Initiatives of Change. For me, that means that Europe, including the Netherlands, has to change course. We cannot continue to finance foreign wars or pursue boundless economic growth if we want to be part of the solution to this war (and the climate crisis). And we must treat war refugees equally as far as is practically possible, both politically and personally. After all, in a democratic society, politics ultimately starts with us: the people. We are thus not only influenced by political discourse, but we also influence and shape it ourselves. We have to face our double standards when it comes to our attitudes towards refugees before we ask decision-makers to do the same.  

This is not to say that it is wrong to identify more strongly with the Ukrainians than with the Syrians. Perceiving others as ‘different’ or ‘the same’ is a human trait. However, we should not politicize this selective self-identification without criticism. It is true that Europe cannot accommodate all refugees. Yet a compassionate European refugee policy should not be determined by how ‘European’ or ‘Western’ the refugee in question appears.

This double standard puts us at risk as well. I believe that all people desire peace because it is the absolute precondition for human dignity. An attack on any group is an attack on our peace. If we had identified ourselves with the Syrians, victims of Assad and Putin, we would have taken the threat that is Putin more seriously. Perhaps we would have been better prepared for his tyranny, which hangs like a dark cloud over Europe.

Also read: Freedom is not free by Hennie de Pous-de Jonge.

By Shereen Siwpersad.