A Call to Action to GMF Alumni to Counter the Populist Spectre
A spectre is haunting Europe. It has the face of ordinary people, those who are outside politics, who consider politics to be a dirty thing, ordinary people. Or, to say it as a famous Italian political movement did after World War II, those who oppose everything that is “culture.” Those who do not learn and do not want to learn numbers, statistics, analysis. Those who form opionions based on impressions only. Those who reason (indeed who un-reason) on the basis of suggestions, impulses, anger. Who cannot stand reasoning. Who love slogans, insults, rallies where all are shouting as one.
This spectre is populism, the oldest and worst kind of populism that so many times in past centuries has brought the world to persecution, war, and ruin. We know it well, that spectre. We know how intolerant it can be. And how contagious.
From a certain point of view, Brexit is the result of populism. A premonition happened here in Italy a few years ago, when Lega Nord and Forza Italia won the parliamentary and local elections (2008) and also the European elections (2009) by fanning the flames of fear of strangers, fear of invasion. After their victory, negative legislation against immigrants followed. Do you remember? This included non-recognition of the status of EU citizens for Romanians and Bulgarians; fingerprints taken by force of Roma children; illegal immigration considered a criminal offense instead of an administrative measure; frantic campaigns against foreigners. The Romanians in those years became the target of a relentless campaign and were branded as parasites, habitual offenders, rapists of women, thieves and robbers. It was useless to exhibit statistics and studies showing this was rarely so, that behind the posters, there were so many good people and hard workers. The spectre did not listen to any reasonable arguments. It shouted and preached violence. And it was contagious. The immigrant, regardless of color, was seen as a potential criminal, as an invader. Many were fired just because on their passport there was nothing written in Italian. Finding a house to rent was nearly impossible, and some people were stabbed on the streets.
Fortunately Italy is in the EU and it was the decisive intervention of the EU that stopped most of these outrageous laws. And some were rejected by the Italian Constitutional Court. And after the far right bluff had been called, Italians began to discover that the difficulty was not immigrants, but was in fact the economic crisis and the incapacity of the government to find solutions.
And now I see this contagion overflow, reaching many other parts of Europe. I see it in the barbed wire fences of Hungary, for example, and in the closure policy that Eastern European countries are practicing against one of the most dramatic humanitarian emergencies of our time. And I see this same violence and anger in the Brexit vote.
Yet Europe is not, and cannot be reduced to this. Europe is history, art and civilizations, but also liberal values, democracy, tolerance, understanding, and reason. It is the ability to live together. We cannot vote on the impulses of hatred and irrational fear, on which hatred feeds.
We then require robust antibodies, before it is too late. The spectre has to be driven back, locked up again in the tragic history of the twentieth century. And what is the antidote? I would say the antidote is the new generation of young Europeans who are citizens not only of their own countries, but also of a united Europe.
These EU young people, for example, also include Italians working in England who are impacted by Brexit, and cannot enjoy anymore "European" status and its opportunities; or those British who are already living on the continent, who have woven relations through their labor, who are often in mixed marriages, with bilingual children. Planes to or from London, to or from Scotland, or for other English regions are daily filled with people who have such intertwined relationships, young people who founded start-ups, who conduct shared research, exchange goods and services on both sides of the Channel. What will become of all this? Healthy carriers of European culture, flag bearer of supranational values. Girls and boys of a world that not only will, but that is already here now, which already exists and is a world of integration and peace among peoples.
We must launch a campaign with these young people as protagonists. We have to oppose the fear of those who do not know, and respond to the courage of those who know and want to go forward. We must overcome the selfishness of those who are closing doors, elevate the altruism of those who are open, and disallow the kind of leaders who want to capitalize on conflict. Our generation must make this campaign for a Europe without barriers, brave, united, hard-working and without prejudice. The Europe of the future, as an antidote to the Europe of spectres.
As GMF leadership program alumni, we have this task before us: we must demonstrate that dialogue and cooperation between people is possible, that we can understand each other and work together regardless of our color, religion, or provinence. We must bring forward our shared values, those that unite us rather than divide us. Brexit produced a profound wound inside Europe. Now it is time to heal it.
Alina Harja (TILN 2012), Italy correspondent for Romanian TV Antena 1 and for the news channel Antena 3 (an affiliate of CNN). She is the editor of the biweekly Actualitatea Magazin, and president of the Friends of Romania association. She is co-author with Guido Melis of Romeni. La minoranza decisiva per l’Italia di domani (2010).
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.