Nationalism and Xenophobia

The EU is facing enormous challenges. The coming months could be crucial in determining the future of the EU and its broad political orientations. The EU is facing an unprecedented series of challenges in particular on security, climate change, migration and the economy. This combination gives an opportunity for populism to rise and spread its venomous rhetoric.

This is a summary of the introductory words of a document “A New Agenda for Europe 2016-2019” prepared by the Party of European Socialists (PES). I wholeheartedly agree.
PES is critical of the situation in the EU, though less than I would be, but it is possible to agree that EU is no longer faithful to the ideas on which it was founded, most decisions are taken by non-elected financial oligarchy and European citizens feel increasingly alienated. Brexit is just the most recent and dramatic example. PES argues that people will regain trust in the EU when it becomes more social, more fair, more efficient and it improves people’s daily lives. The question is not more or less Europe, but what it does. And, understandably, concludes that PES wants a “Europe that defends the rights and prosperity of all its citizens, a Social Europe”.
On this the Left, both in Western Europe as well as in Eastern Europe, could agree. The most glaring divisions between people, who otherwise would share the same leftwing perception of the economy and many other issues, involve the perception of the migration wave. PES would stress the need to stand in solidarity with those fleeing war, poverty and persecution. And it would highlight the moral duty as well as the legal commitment stemming from the 1951 Refugee Convention. In short principles of solidarity, responsibility and humanism should be unquestionably observed. This should translate into the fair sharing of responsibilities and solidarity between different EU member states, including the full implementation of relocation and resettlement policies. And here the wheel of solidarity suddenly grinds almost a halt.
The V4 countries opposed the compulsory quotas for the allocation of refugees to individual countries. And they have been outvoted. Some responded with an outcry of anger and prepared indictments against Brussels, the protests of others were more muted but the population in these countries remains – in their majority – firmly in opposition. Politicians rapidly gain votes by tough and populist anti-immigration rhetoric.
Their statements are applauded by supporters of Madame Le Pen’s National Party in France, or of Party for Freedom of Geert Wilders in Netherlands and several other similar rightwing parties.
However, the positions of the East European politicians are based on slightly different experience and perceptions. My explanation of this phenomenon stems from my experience in this country, the Czech Republic, but I do believe that it has a more general application.
Let me start with more general observations:
The political apathy inculcated in the people in the decades of communist rule could not be entirely swept aside in one felt swoop of the revolution. These societies also developed through an overdependence on the state and thus had strong elements of authoritarianism built into their culture. It soon became obvious that to develop a firmly rooted civil society is going to be very difficult and slow process.
In my opinion Ralph Dahrendorf’s estimate that it may take 60 years to develop a democratic political culture in which the values of democracy become rooted in people’s mindsets and reflected in their behaviour could have been an over optimistic guess. It is not that civil society did not develop but that the impact of civil society development has not yet produced the kind of substantive democracy that would enable citizens to exercise some real participatory power. Just the contrary, a widespread corruption undermines the entire functioning of democracy in almost all fields. People have not internalised democratic values.
What we do witness today is in part a result of a great disappointment as the development after 1989 fell well short of the enormous expectations. We can witness voters’ apathy, decline of traditional political parties and the influence of money on politics. One can even talk about the privatization of state and politics. The gradual merge of political parties and economic interests, frequently supported by global capital, leads to systemic corruption and privatization of state roles (pension systems, education, health service, security) into the hands of private groups. There is deep disillusionment with the promises of democracy, certain resentment provoked by the destruction of social state and by the widespread corruption.
Citizens’ fear of what the future will bring them has opened once again the space for the return of notions such as nation, nationalism, national interests, national identity.
In short, the fear of the future, especially among the young and the unemployed, combined with the fear of the foreigners and anything foreign, with the absence of any real values leads people to embrace the ideas of nationalism, in its most intolerant forms. Peoples’ frustration and anger are then channelled towards imaginary enemies, be they Romanies, Muslims, homeless people or Brussels bureaucrats, whom they blame for all their social problems.
There are, for example, very few Muslims in the Czech Republic and their community is very moderate with no real problem of integration. However, we display here a wave of fear of the Muslim migrants, of such magnitude that it was noticed even by the UN.
UN Commissioner for human rights Zaíd Husain recently accused a group of European politicians of populist simplification and of the spread of unjustified fear connected with migration. I do not wish to deal with the details of this controversial statement but I have to acknowledge that the fear is clearly highly noticeable. The fear of Muslims, of foreigners, of multicultural policies is primarily the fear of the unknown. And local media magnates, our own Berlusconis, can play this music quite effectively. One can read daily about ritual murders, beheadings of innocent people, rapes, the terrible consequences of the imposition of sharia laws and the quoted examples are frequently true, though the context is not necessarily clear or how typical is this terrible behaviour of all the Muslims. For the feelings of fear this is irrelevant. And few days ago I read also the reminder of the so called historical fact that 100,000 Bolsheviks were able to take power in 150 million strong Russia and keep it for 70 years.
This strong wave of fear propels ambitious politicians who attempt to turn new populist and nationalist groups into political parties and then use peoples’ fears and prejudices and their intolerance of anything foreign and unknown as well as public support for openly anti-immigrant and anti-islamist policies in their quest for power.
You have to understand that we have no historic experience of any immigrants from outside Europe, from different cultures, different religions and different traditions and thus we are vulnerable to media hysteria that supports fear, isolationism, extreme nationalism and xenophobia. Same as in the 1920s and 30s, anti-Semites prevailed in regions without any Jews, today anti-Muslims prevail in countries where there are no (or almost no) Muslim communities. The reasons for us not being prepared to accept larger number of migrants from far away foreign countries are given by our history. We never had any opportunity to learn how to live with such citizens (with a certain exception of the Vietnamese), we have no colonial past and we did not participate in the West European economic miracle of the 1960s. As I have said we have no experience. On the contrary we have fear and prejudices. Other nations (for example the British) learned to live with different ethnic groups for generations. This is still ahead of us.
Let me make clear that I do not wish to underestimate the dangers presented to Europeans, to European culture and well being of citizens by large number of migrants from very different cultures, especially from those, who refuse to accept the laws of their new countries, and to try to peacefully integrate. If they will commit crimes, they have to be punished according to the laws of the land. I am only warning against the danger of generalisations and simplifications, fuelled by fear and biased reporting.
I recently talked to a former Sudanese Foreign Minister Mr Ali Kartí. He pointed out the fact that Indira Gandhi was assassinated by a Buddhist but no one thought of blaming Buddhism for this crime. Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a rightwing Zionist but no one thought of blaming Zionism, let alone all the Jews. In the US Oklahoma a mass murder was committed by a Christian but no one blamed his religion. However, when a crime is committed by a Muslim, then blame is laid on all forms of Islam.
I am a strong believer in diplomatic and peaceful solutions of armed conflicts. However, I do confess to one case of intolerance: I am intolerant of fanatical fundamentalist terrorists such as the so called Islamic state. And I do support military responses to their annexation of land, occupation of cities and genocide policies towards those they perceive as renegades and enemies. I am also not averse to the idea of a European army, though I am sure that this will not be accepted, let alone implemented, for a long time.
But I am convinced that we should concentrate on challenging racism, intolerance and xenophobia among our citizens at home. An exchange of experience with peoples and regions where such a fight was relatively successful would be welcomed. In the current atmosphere to fight xenophobia is not an easy task. I have written few articles and participated in few demonstrations. And soon an organisation calling itself White Media (hiding behind an anonymous address in the USA) stole hundreds of my emails and published them with a description of myself as “leading social democrat and a dangerous leftist humanitarian intellectual of Jewish origin and a supporter of unacceptable minorities”.
We definitely need to tackle the reasons for the uncontrolled mass migration of recent times. It suffices to say that the largest number of refugees come from countries that suffer from armed conflicts and wars. I believe that we should show solidarity with people that are attempting to escape from places where people are shot, beheaded or bombarded. They leave their homes to save their lives.
It is only logical that the burden of the current wave of refugees should be spread across Europe more justly. But what is fairness and justice in this case? Many people here argue that the greatest responsibility lies with the states that caused the problem in the first place. The most guilty states have to come up with a firm multifaceted response to this crisis.
On the one hand they have to stop their military interventions and ensure that fighting stops in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan or Iraq. We can all recall military interventions that pretended to protect the world from weapons of mass destruction which no longer existed. Libya used to be a rich and stable state. Today there are still many tribes and extremist groups which fight each other and we know what led to this state of affairs. Remarkably erroneous policies led to the destruction of Syria that was once stable, prosperous and the only secular Arab country. One of the West’s greatest allies, a very rich Saudi Arabia, is bombarding one of the poorest countries in the world, Yemen. Another ally, Israel, continues to occupy Palestinian West Bank in defiance of UN resolutions. And I could continue for a long time. We should all join forces to stop the wars but obviously certain countries carry more responsibilities.
On the other hand, there is an obvious great need to significantly improve the living conditions in the countries from where the immigrants are escaping. There is a need to greatly invest in the regions that have been destabilised. There is a need to ensure provision of food, health care, and above, all security. There is a need to build an adequate infrastructure so that these countries can trade. Only trade, not aid, can help them to get out of the dangerous spiral of poverty.
It is well known that more than half of the world’s population has income smaller than 2 USD per day and more than a billion people have to survive with income smaller than 1 USD per day. The gap between the developed and the developing world is widening rather than closing. In many parts of the world people live in fear of suicidal terrorists or of state terrorism but even more people fear extreme poverty.
Thousands of refugees drown in the Mediterranean Sea but thousands of others reach Italy and Greece. Incidentally, Czech media pointed out few days ago that we have just accepted 8 (eight!) refugees from Greece based on the quotas agreed upon by the EU. The Czech Republic was allocated 1591 immigrants but to date there are altogether 12 refugees from the Mediterranean states here. I shall restrain from any comments. And I am obviously aware that the vast majority of refugees do not wish to settle down in the Czech Republic or in any of the other V4 countries.
I am also aware that about 40% of the refugees – according to the UN – are economic migrants escaping from poverty, who do not conform to the Geneva Convention rules and thus are not entitled to an asylum in Europe. They should be returned to their home countries but – I repeat – Europe and the USA should help these countries economically, financially so that there will be no need of people to avoid hunger by fleeing to Europe.
We obviously have a very long way to go towards the Social Europe mentioned by PES at the beginning of my talk, a Europe that would be closer to the original ideas of Jacques Delors; Europe integrated, democratic, ecologically responsible and socially just. We should not tolerate escapes from the complexities of the globalised world into the simple narrative of ethnic nationalism. And we have to challenge those who spread fear.

* Speech at the international conference themed European Security after the Cold War: What are the solutions to new challenges?, Prague, on 16-17 September 2016,
Jan Kavan is a former Czech politician and diplomat. He was the Minister of Foreign Affairsof the Czech Republic from 1998 to 2002 and one of the deputy prime ministers from 1999 to 2002. He was elected President of the United Nations General Assembly and acted in this office from 2002 to 2003. President, “The Iron Curtain Foundation”.