GROUNDHOG BREXIT IS DRIVING US CRAZY – BUT IT’S ALSO A GLOBAL CAUTIONARY TALE, BY SHADA ISLAM

Groundhog Brexit is driving everyone slightly mad. But it’s also an unparalleled masterclass on the “do’s and don’ts” of leadership and democracy.

As in the 1993 film, Groundhog Day, Brexit Britain seems to be stuck in a time warp, reliving the same debates, endlessly making the same demands, day after day after day.

In the movie, the character played by the marvellous Bill Murray finally discovers love and happiness, thereby breaking free of the dreadful time loop he’s entrapped in.

But with less than 50 days to B-day, the Brexit version lacks such light at the end of the tunnel.

Call it Brexit shambles, Brexit tragedy or Brexit distraction. Call it the “will of the people”. Whatever the description, Britain’s rupture with the EU is beginning to take its toll on just about everyone.

Patience is running out on this side of the Channel, nerves are fraying on the other. The rest of the world can’t believe the shenanigans of a once-respected British political class.

But for a minute – just for a minute – let’s stop obsessing over the depressing “breaking news” bulletins from Westminster and Number 10, the investors and jobs leaving Britain and British politicians and former government officials grabbing lucrative post-Brexit jobs and speaking engagements.

Instead, let’s take the long view.

As it unfolds, slowly and painfully, Brexit Britain is clearly providing invaluable lessons on the reach and power of the European Union.

Having seen the million uncertainties ahead as Britain tries to break free, most Europeans aren’t too keen on their own country embarking on such a perilous journey.

Most Eurosceptic and Far Right parties have abandoned talk of leaving the EU

As such, most Eurosceptic and Far Right parties have abandoned talk of leaving the EU. Seeing the Brexit drama developing, their focus has switched to capturing power to try and change Europe from within. This will be Europe’s true challenge in the years ahead.

But Brexit is doing more than just reshaping the European narrative ahead of European Parliament elections and the selection of new European Commissioners. It is also a closely-observed global cautionary tale.

Brexit is providing political scientists, sociologists, governance experts and psychologists across the world with a powerful, living, daily masterclass on leadership, governance and democracy in the 21st century.

Here’s a short and very incomplete list of six lessons that Brexit has taught us:

First, it’s time to start assessing the quality of democracy, not just its visible components. Holding elections (or in this case a ‘people’s vote’), having a functioning parliament and separating the executive from the judiciary used to be enough to join the league of democratic nations. No longer. Brexit is vivid proof that the emphasis – especially in established democracies – must now shift to the standard and quality of democracy, democratic institutions and those who run them.

Second, let’s practice what we preach. Europeans are quick to teach the world about democracy and the rule of law. The rules on good governance that underpin European judgement on African, Asian and Latin American governments and politicians are all fine and dandy. But Brexit might not have happened if these standards were applied just as rigorously at home as they are abroad.

Third, the EU can’t ‘stay out’ of national political debates. It makes little sense to give ‘Brussels’ the power to assess member states’ economic performance, fiscal conduct and rule of law implementation while declaring that the EU cannot ‘meddle’ in the domestic political debates that determine a country’s political future. Surely, a key Brexit lesson must be that the conversation on Europe cannot be left exclusively to national politicians?

Brexit is proof that experts matter and that while facts and figures may be boring, they are ultimately important

Fourth, read any governance manual and it’s clear that leadership in the 21st century requires digital literacy but also skills such as empathy, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and flexibility. Brexit is a vivid showcase of the nightmare that can engulf a nation when politicians possess none of these qualities and when they shamelessly put party before country, endlessly referring to an imaginary past rather than preparing for a very real, risky future.

Fifth, the devil (really) is in the detail. Brexit is proof that experts matter and that while facts and figures may be boring, they are ultimately important. “Brexit is Brexit” and other similar banalities may sound great for a few days but once the euphoria of ‘independence’ wears off, it’s important to start looking at the small print. Failure to do so only means that such small mundane details as Gibraltar, the future of Scotland and Northern Ireland suddenly become rather big and difficult to manage.

Sixth, jokes are great but jobs are better. British humour has had us rolling in the aisles for decades. All those hilarious television shows, the perfect witty put-downs, the wink and the nudge, the right pun at the right moment. Such fun. Everyone giggling as politicians vie with comedians to shrug off serious concerns with yet another joke. But Brexit is sad. And now the joke may be on Britain.

Many more lessons, some serious, some less so, will be learnt in the days and weeks ahead. British politicians may still come to their senses. Or not.

Brexit was once derided as a soap opera. It has now become an important global manual on the quality of governance.

Advertisements

Walking the talk on EU-India cooperation

A new EU strategy for India released last year spotlights Europe’s rising interest in India and hopes for increased cooperation.  The blueprint is aspirational and ambitious – if Europe and India can work together on even a third of the areas outlined by Brussels, relations would take a giant stride forward.

Here’s my take on what Brussels and Delhi should focus on as outlined at an EU-India Think Tanks meeting held in Delhi on January 8, a side event of the massive Raisina Dialogue.

One piece of advice on the bilateral front: ditch the painful, long and frustrating process of trying to negotiate a free trade deal known as the Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement. The talks have been going on for 12 years, creating acrimony and poisoning the overall relationship. It’s time to move on.

Instead, focus on clinching an “easier” agreement on protecting and promoting two-way investments. Focus also on opening up the rapidly growing services sector. The fact is that the growth in EU-India trade in goods isn’t dependent on a free trade agreement, but on how attractive European and Indian businesses think each others’ markets are.

FTAs aren’t getting any easier to negotiate and conclude – and both Europe and India have made a long list of demands which are being resisted by the other. The increase in  anti-globalisation sentiment in both Europe and India is another important obstacle.

Four suggestions on what the EU and India can do together on the multilateral front:

First, start walking the talk on reforming global governance. US President Donald Trump’s retreat from America’s international commitments has dealt a strong blow to the multilateral rules-based order – but the blow need not be a fatal one.

Europe can work with Asian countries – like-minded and unlike-minded – to salvage and reform parts of the multilateral system which have served everyone so well for the last 70 years.

Start with the World Trade Organisation and specifically with reform of the Appellate Body and the Dispute Settlement Mechanism. Good proposals have been put in by the EU – they could form the basis of a revamped and more inclusive global trade system.

Second, multilateralise ongoing national and regional discussions on connectivity. The need for more and better infrastructure is universally recognised. And although it gets the most attention, China’s Belt and Road Initiative isn’t the only connectivity show in town – although it is the most visible and financially hefty one.

Others – including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – have been in the game for many more years. Japan, India and Europe have a similar interest in increasing connectivity. But all these projects operate under different rules and standards, leaving many countries confused and unsure.

The EU’s recently-released strategy for Euro-Asian connectivity fills the governance and regulatory gap by setting out a comprehensive list of standards for transparency and sustainability which should be the required of all connectivity projects. As such, it can be used a rulebook for an international consensus on connectivity, providing many countries with a desperately-needed toolkit when negotiating infrastructure projects with China and others.

Third, India and the EU should join forces to implement Agenda 2030, with a special focus on eliminating inequality through an intensified focus on girls’ education.

Fourth, Europe and Asian countries should pay more attention to ASEM, the platform for Asia Europe Meetings, set up in 1996 to enhance EU-Asia relations. The successful ASEM summit held in Brussels in October 2018 is testimony to the fact that the forum is increasingly relevant given current geopolitical transformations.

The list above is by no means exhaustive. Europe and India – and Europe with other Asian countries – can do much more together on the bilateral and multilateral level.

Enhanced EU-Asian cooperation will require a change in mindsets in both regions. Old-fashioned and out-dated concepts and stereotyping will have to change on both sides, replaced by a new, more inclusive approach.

There will have to be uncomfortable compromises, more give and take, more listening to each other, less talking past each other.

The new “re-order” will be patchy, incomplete, more transactional. Coalitions will be built more around issues, less around values.

Finally, while many dream of Eurasia, others are afraid of it.  Whether we like it or not, increased integration between the two regions is taking place. US President Donald Trump has unknowingly accelerated the process.

One day, we’ll look back and say “thank you”.

 

 

 

 

Rumi, Europe and the challenge of “wicked men”

Rumi, the 12th century Sufi poet who wandered between Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq looking for truth, beauty and love said: “Earth turns to gold in the hands of the wise, gold turns to ashes in the hands of the wicked.”

As leaders gathered last weekend in Paris and elsewhere to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I, Rumi’s words ring truer than ever.

It’s nice they all turned up. But too many of the leaders mourning the war dead were really just Rumi’s “wicked” men and women who, with toxic words and actions, are wrecking the fragile achievements of the past and inciting hate and division.

How different from their counterparts seven decades ago who came together after World War II to say “never again” to hate, war and conflict – and meant it.

The lessons of the past are being forgotten. The last World War I veteran died in 2012. And the number of those who experienced World War II and the Holocaust is shrinking.

It’s simple: Europe just has to become more exciting

Gold is being turned to ashes by Europe’s so-called “illiberal democrats” and ethno-nationalists who are proud of their racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic and Eurosceptic views.

Those trying to build an alternative Europe have no time for democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s wise counsel at the Armistice commemorations to “fight for peace” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s important warning against “blinkered nationalism” therefore fell on deaf ears.

But with elections to the European Parliament around the corner, the start of jostling for top EU jobs and Eurosceptic and Far Right parties ready for battle, this is not the time to give up.

The European Commission’s Frans Timmermans and Vera Jourova are right to warn that young generations must not forget the need to continuously tame Europe’s “inner demons”. A creeping amnesia about Europe’s past must be countered.

Keeping the European story of peace and reconciliation alive requires creativity and imagination, however.

It can’t just be about strong statements, historical references or fact and figures – however powerful. It can’t be about blame games – however tempting. And it can’t be about business as usual – however easy. It’s simple: Europe just has to become more exciting.

Here are some quick suggestions:

Make Europe more about people and less about process. As such, forget the “same old, same old” stale, mostly male politicians who are lining up for a piece of the cake and get more exciting candidates – especially more women, young people and more minorities – into the race for the top EU jobs.

To do that, learn from the US midterm elections and the success of the “women’s wave” which got over 100 female candidates elected to the House of Representatives. Women who are still shy or dithering about throwing their hat into the EU ring must stop reflecting and start acting. America has shown it can be done.

Focus also on the energy and passion of ethnic minorities who are increasingly constructive and engaged on Europe. Once again, watch and learn from the US where the Congress now has its first Native American representatives, the first Muslim women in the House and the youngest woman ever to serve.

And so, get more young people onto the political lists and go look for millennial candidates. Brexit was the tragic example of how wrong things can go when more old people turn out to vote. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen again next May.

Channel the energy and motivation of Europe’s many exciting civic movements like Volt, Pulse Europe and others which are connecting with people, listening to their hopes, aspirations and fears. They are enlivening the European conversation. They now need to move from the periphery to the centre to become part of the EU’s institutional conversation.

Sidestep the Far Right hate and bait messages and instead challenge the many mainstream European politicians who are making it so easy for Far Right and Far Left groups to grab the initiative, take control of the European narrative and to distort and misshape it out of recognition. Such centrists are, in fact, amplifying the extremists’ message. They should stop doing so.

Europeans must look to the future but also listen and learn from their past

Don’t extinguish our personal and collective sense of outrage at the constant diatribes from the Far Right or their pernicious attacks on European values. Hate-mongering and the stoking of fear should not be normalised or merely ridiculed. It should be denounced for what it is: unacceptable.

Insist that European progressive forces become less shy of flying their true colours.  Long-dormant European liberals and democrats are finally waking up from their slumber and hitting back at the populists who have so far dominated – nay, dictated – the EU agenda. It’s time for a progressive renaissance.

Encourage and invest in an independent, credible and critical media which is not afraid to hold politicians accountable and challenge false narratives. While doing so, stop being gullible about fake news and misleading disinformation.

Finally, never take peace or democracy for granted. Wise people have warned over and over again of the need to constantly reinforce and refresh our commitment to democracy and values and to be vigilant.

The adventure Europe embarked on seventy years ago is unique, with lessons for the rest of the world. Europeans must look to the future but also listen and learn from their past.

Pakistan, democracy and the curious demise of the independent press

The truth is I was expecting the letter. And it came on November 8 while I was in Rome, thinking about what to write for my weekly column in Dawn, Pakistan’s leading, independent newspaper.

Dawn’s editor Zaffar Abbas wrote to say that he was sorry. The newspaper was in trouble. “The unannounced state policy of the last over two years to put a squeeze on the paper was already having its toll, and now several other factors have added to its financial problems”.

And as a result, there was no room for my weekly column from Europe anymore. He hopes it’s a temporary snag. But I fear it isn’t.

Dawn is in the firing line of Pakistan’s military and the current army-sponsored   populist government of Imran Khan. The newspaper is too independent, too daring, not ready to bow and scrape, to lie and pander. My colleague Cyril Almeida is being tried for treason. Other journalists are also being muzzled.

I’ve been writing for the paper for at least 25 years and enjoyed every minute. It has never been my main job. I’ve worked for the Far Eastern Economic Review and now as Director for Europe and Geopolitics for Friends of Europe, one of Europe’s leading think tanks.

Writing for Dawn, however, kept me linked to my country of birth. The editor said I had a “loyal following” of readers who wanted to hear an insider/outsider’s view of global politics, Europe, America, China and Pakistan.

I loved it – and put my heart and soul into every weekly column I wrote which, like clockwork, appeared every Saturday.

But I knew the hammer was ready to fall.

An article I had written just before the July elections in Pakistan had – for the first time – been axed because it was considered too tough on the role of the military. Other pieces since then have been vetted to make sure there was no offensive content. Truth be told, it was becoming extremely annoying.

Ironically, my last article in Dawn, published last week, was about the global war on free speech. And I underlined that  journalism in Asia was most at risk.

The attacks on Dawn are a sad – nay tragic – sign of the slow death of Pakistan’s democracy. And in fact it’s no longer the army or the “civilian government” led by Imran Khan which is in charge. Religious extremists run the show.

For proof look no further than the so-called blasphemy case against Asia Bibi and, earlier, the decision to cancel the appointment of a renowned economist Atif Rehman Mian as an adviser to the government because he belongs to Pakistan’s Ahmediya minority.

Seventy-one years after independence, Pakistan’s path to democracy has been a  roller-coaster ride. Thrills one minute, despondence and tragedy the next. Heroes morphed into villains – and bad guys were reborn as heroes.

International media reports – on and off –  on the clamp down on the media, the soap-operatic conduct of leading politicians and the rise of intolerant, extremist voices.

The picture is of a complicated country which is part problematic troublemaker, part an enigma, with a deep state within a state, fragile and polarised, uncertain of its loyalties.

There is little doubt that through the years, Pakistan’s toxic military-intelligence has stood centre stage, manipulating politicians, pulling the strings, making key decisions, taking sides and clamping down on press freedom.

But despite the turmoil and military meddling, Pakistan had persevered on its democratic trajectory. Democracy in Pakistan was messy and flawed but many believed it was also ultimately resilient.

Dictators came  and went. Military coups were  followed by civilians in power – and the other way around. In between, there was  heady talk of transparency and accountability, combating corruption, building a new and stronger economy.

Through the turmoil and turbulence, democracy doggedly ploughed on. That was thanks to the resilience and democratic aspirations of the people of Pakistan, a strong media, civil society representatives and human rights defenders.

Pakistani politicians, meanwhile, were more than willing to collude and connive with anti-democratic forces.

But times have changed. Dramatically. Imran Khan’s election has confirmed and reinforced the role of an ever more intrusive military and, even more dangerously, it has unleashed the demons of religious extremism.

Sustained democracy in the 21st Century hinges on strong institutions and good governance. Strong democracies require an honest and credible press, an active and committed civil society, robust municipal and city authorities and the active political participation of women, young people end ethnic minorities.

Pakistan’s current “rulers” are – one by one – crushing all the drivers of democracy. I fear there may be no going back.

View From Abroad: Lies, immigration and the battle for Europe’s soul

WORLD attention is rightly focused on America’s controversial “zero tolerance” immigration policy and the US decision to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The US moves have been criticised by many in Europe. But in fact, governments on this side of the Atlantic are engaged in a similarly epic struggle over immigration, human rights and the rule of law.

Make no mistake: the battle over immigration raging across the continent is for the soul, hearts and minds of Europeans. After a temporary lull, migration is back on the top of the European Union’s political agenda. And the debate is fiercer and more corrosive than ever before.

Take a look: The perils of Pakistani migrants heading to Europe

Europe’s xenophobic and nativist far-right parties — both in government and outside it — are leading the conversation. And winning it.

Their get-tough approach to migration and asylum has seeped into the agenda of most mainstream European political parties. Very few politicians dare to contest the false assertions that migration is bad for Europe because it threatens the European way of life, leads to increased unemployment, crime and terrorism.

Fanning the fires of the constant diatribes against migration and migrants is US President Donald Trump. In recent tweets, Trump made the false claim that crime was up in Germany since the 2015 arrival of refugees from the war-torn Middle East.

The US leader has many fans in Europe, including the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban who has a special bee in his bonnet about Muslim immigrants and Islam in general.

But others are not far behind. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, a right-wing conservative who is in coalition with the far right, has called for the formation of an anti-migrant “axis of the willing” with Germany and Italy to push for more restrictive border policies at an EU level.

Set to take over the EU presidency from July to December, Kurz has promised to pursue his hard line on migration at the EU level in the coming months. In a move, which made headlines across the world, Italy’s new populist right-wing government recently closed its ports to the Aquarius rescue ship carrying over 600 refugees.

The boat, whose passengers included children, pregnant women and people needing medical attention, was welcomed by Spain’s new centre-left Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

Now, Italy is back in the spotlight with its interior minister Matteo Salvini’s call for a census of the country’s Roma community with the aim of expelling those who are not Italian citizens. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition remains under threat following her interior minister Horst Seehofer’s demands that Germany should be able to expel registered asylum seekers to other EU countries.

Importantly, these and other demands by the increasingly rabid right- wing politicians in Europe are clearly illegal under national and international legislation, a fact which is being highlighted by experts.

Any plan that suggests a blanket return of asylum seekers at the border of a European country would come up against both EU law and the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank. A census based on ethnic background is against Italian law, with many saying the plan evoked memories of race laws in 1938.

Still, slowly but surely, however, despite the protests from some, EU policies are moving further to the right. EU leaders next week are set to endorse plans to create so-called “regional disembarkation platforms” or offshore facilities outside the bloc — possibly Tunisia — where “economic migrants” would be weeded out from refugees who are “in need of international protection”.

The aim would be to “reduce the incentive to embark on perilous journeys”.

Divisions continue to simmer on other issues. The introduction of compulsory refugee relocation quotas is vigorously opposed by Hungary and other central European countries and proposals for a long-overdue overhaul of the Dublin system, which assigns responsibility for processing asylum claims, are still deadlocked.

However, the EU’s new seven-year budget includes an array of new tools, including a “migration management window”. An investment fund for African countries has been set up to “tackle the root causes of migration”.

Italy, with EU support, has been providing training and logistical support to Libya’s coastguard in a bid to better patrol the Mediterranean. And spending on migration control is set to account for €9 billion of the EU’s development budget between 2021 and 2027.

The numbers of asylum seekers knocking on European doors have fallen compared to the 2015 crisis. The EU’s asylum office counted 728,470 asylum applications in 2017, a 44 per cent reduction on the 1.3m applications in the previous year. But those figures are still far higher than the pre-crisis levels; around 460,000 people applied for asylum in EU countries in 2013.

The concern is that with wars still raging in Syria and Yemen and high population growth rates in sub-Saharan Africa, the number of migrants seeking to come to Europe is likely to stay high.

European politicians know this, just as they know that Europe needs migrants to prop up the continent’s economies and declining social welfare systems. With one eye on the next election, few have the moral courage, however, to stand up and say so. It’s easier to rant and rage. And mislead the public with distracting headlines and over-the-top, blatantly illegal proposals.

—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2018

View from abroad: Democracy is about more than winning elections

AS Pakistan heads to the polls and politicians in the country make epic promises to create a “new Pakistan”, it’s important to remember: democracy is not just about who wins the elections.

It’s not about who gets to be prime minister, takes over the reins of power, travels to faraway lands to meet famous people and then comes back home to hold cabinet meetings, travel in motorcades and give ponderous speeches about fighting corruption, both moral and financial.

Democracy is about good governance. It’s about institutions. Civilians in charge and military in the barracks. It’s about strong, solid institutions, people committed to putting the interest of their fellow citizens above party and personal interests and following the rules and laws of the land.

Pakistan is not the only country which faces the challenge of fighting off populists or a powerful military.

Politicians who are so focused on fulfilling their personal ambition that they forget their duty to the nation and the people who elected them are the norm in many parts of the world.

Strong democracies require an honest and credible press, an active and committed civil society, robust municipal and city authorities and the active political participation of women, young people end ethnic minorities.

Let’s start with the press. It used to be the case that journalists were murdered, abducted and censored only in countries ruled by dictators and autocrats. Or, as illustrated by the brutal killing of 10 journalists in Afghanistan last week, media came under attack in countries wracked by war.

Journalism is still a perilous profession in many parts of the developing world. But as witnessed recently when investigative journalists were killed in Slovakia and Malta, working as a reporter is also becoming increasingly risky in many established democracies.

And then there is the constant outpouring of hostility against journalists promoted by media-bashing enthusiasts such as US President Donald Trump and his friends and fans in central and eastern Europe.

By calling reporters “enemies of the people”, these and other political leaders are not just attacking journalism and journalists, they are endangering democracy itself.

The warning contained in the latest World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, should give us pause for thought.

Yes, fake news and propaganda are all interfering with elections, referenda, politicians’ reputations and, more generally, with governance across the world.

But democracies are also under threat from within. By promoting hostility and animosity towards journalists, politicians in established democracies are also encouraging the rise of populists, prompting decisions like the one on Brexit and facilitating the dissemination of toxic messages against migrants, refugees, women, Jews, Muslims and other “others”.

The unleashing of hatred towards journalists is one of the worst threats to democracies,” according to Christophe Deloire, the secretary general of Reporters without Frontiers. “Political leaders who fuel loathing for reporters bear heavy responsibility because they undermine the concept of public debate based on facts instead of propaganda. To dispute the legitimacy of journalism today is to play with extremely dangerous political fire.

Second, to revive dying democracies let’s stop looking for “hero” politicians and focus instead on the many extraordinary ways in which ordinary folk are changing the world.

It is time to move beyond the conventional wisdom that political parties are synonymous with democracy and that it’s only about who wins elections and referendums. Politicians in Pakistan and elsewhere have helped to make the world more tribal and polarised, to make the global political discourse shallow and crude.

While politicians argue and squabble, it’s ordinary folk who are shaping the world. Regretfully, they are not often in the headlines – good news rarely is – but they are the ones welcoming refugees, demanding equal rights, asking for gun control, cleaning up our parks and our oceans.

Look carefully, and it’s clear that these so-called “strong” men actually fear their own people, especially human rights defenders, including people like the late and much-celebrated Asma Jahangir.

Third, democracy will only thrive and flourish when the global body politic encourages the participation of women and young people.

The feminist movement is already gathering momentum – even in conservative countries where women have traditionally taken a back seat. When women become more confident with wielding power – their power – they will be able to really challenge convention and change the way societies think and behave.

Fourth, democracy is about what happens in villages, towns and cities. The real heroes of the 21st century are not national politicians but local ones. They are the men and women who have to deal with the day-to-day problems of citizens.

In Europe and America, it’s mayors and local authorities who are standing up for immigration, fighting climate change and working in myriad ways to improve the lives of “ordinary” citizens.

So yes, let’s celebrate democracy and let’s vote in elections – national, provincial and local. But let’s also remember that true democracy is not a top-down affair, something that the “rulers” grant to the “ruled”.

It’s about holding politicians to account, a free press that doesn’t hesitate to speak truth to power and giving everyone in society – women, young people, minorities – a say in shaping the future.

Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2018

Europe’s long search for a hero

DEEP down inside, whether we admit it or not, we’re all looking for a hero. Male or female, adult or child, cynic or naïve, we want a saviour, someone to look up to and inspire. It makes life more meaningful, it gives it direction.

This is true for individuals — and it’s true for communities and nations. In addition to parental guidance, young people crave the advice of mentors. Religious people bow to the knowledge of priests, rabbis and imams.

Political parties abide by the instructions of their whips and group leaders. Armies follow generals. And entire nations want to be led by strong presidents and prime ministers.

But here’s the problem: There is no shortage of villains but heroes are few and far between. The landscape — both national and global — is littered with villains. Bad guys get visibility, media attention, and votes. Good guys come last. Or at least, that’s what it looks like for the moment.

For proof, take the European Union. There’s no dearth of Eurosceptics and EU critics, autocrats and illiberals. In fact, the list of European bad guys (and some bad girls) is long and getting longer.

In contrast, the EU is desperately looking for a hero and an accompanying heroic narrative. The right person, we are encouraged to believe will bring renewed vitality, energy and a sense of purpose to the still-28 nation bloc.

And the right narrative will wake up Europe’s rather disenchanted and distracted European citizens, making people more aware of the EU’s worth and value.

The EU’s founding fathers (there must have been mothers there as well but they aren’t in the history books) were certainly visionary and inspiring. Men such as Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Paul-Henri Spaak and others, laid the foundations of the modern EU in the aftermath of World War II.

Their success in healing the wounds of war is unparalleled. They may have started small by focusing on cooperation on steel and coal but their ambitions were big.

And then, luckily in the 1980s just when the EU was in danger of slowing down, a new generation of builders of Europe emerged: Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor, François Mitterrand, the French president and, perhaps above all, Jacques Delors, a former French finance minister who, over time, became THE European hero.

As president of the European Commission between 1985 and 1995, Delors drove the establishment first of the frontier-free single market and then of the treaty that led to the Euro, the single European currency.

Today, the one big lament of EU insiders is that there has never been “another Delors” to lead Europe. So, the search goes on.

For most of her 11 years in power, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been the undisputed “queen” of Europe. There is general agreement across the bloc that nothing ever gets done in the EU, unless Merkel approves.

But with her business-like approach, her focus on solving current problems rather than looking at wider challenges — and possibly the mere fact that she is a woman — Merkel has never fitted the role of “European hero”. Neither has she aspired to do so.

Never fear, however, the messiah has appeared. The EU has a new saviour, he is young and handsome and very, very pro-European and his name is Emmanuel Macron.

The French president, now one year into his term, is widely recognised as the European reformer, the man with a vision for Europe’s future and the capacity to make it come true. Sort of.

Last week, Macron vowed the European Parliament and EU wallahs across Europe with a three-hour-long intervention packed with punch and passion. There were sound bytes galore and plenty of ambition.

Taking the bull by the horns, the French president condemned the rise of “illiberal democracies” in Europe. Echoing the language of historians about Europe’s slide into war a century ago, he said he would not belong to another “generation of sleepwalkers” and let the EU wither in what he called an atmosphere of “civil war”.

His most quoted quote? “We are seeing authoritarianism all around us and the response is not authoritarian democracy, but the authority of democracy.”

Interestingly, Macron’s address to the parliament only briefly mentioned his lauded Eurozone reforms, possibly because his hopes for an EU-level finance minister, a common EU budget and EU-level bank deposit insurance isn’t too popular with the new coalition government in Berlin.

But Macron does have another important card up his sleeve. He is the one EU leader who has an “inside track” to US President Donald Trump, giving him the nickname of the “Trump whisperer”.

The French president will be in Washington next week, seeking to convince his very unpredictable American counterpart to drop his threat of trade tariffs against US steel and stay true to the nuclear deal with Iran.

Perhaps the Macron magic will work, perhaps it won’t. After all while he still shines in Europe, the French leader faces a summer of strikes and protests at home by disconnected workers.

But then, who says that all heroes have to be perfect?

TO REVIVE DYING DEMOCRACIES, FOCUS ON ORDINARY FOLK, NOT POLITICIANS

The fall-out from the US-led military strikes in Syria will keep us busy for days. Ending the seven-year old war and bringing peace to Syria must certainly be high on the global agenda. It also makes it even more vital to urgently tackle the task of reviving dying democracies.

Populists, illiberals, authoritarians, military dictators and once-democratic-leaders-gone-bad litter the landscape, making the world a more dangerous place. The world’s erstwhile most-powerful nation is being run by a man obsessed with Twitter. Other leaders similarly swear and swagger. Policy by sound bites is becoming the norm.

But what’s a person supposed to do? Democracy is about politics. And politics is about politicians. And politicians belong to political parties. So democracy is about political parties and who gets elected, gets the most votes, gets to sit in the parliament, pass laws, look important.

Well, democracy is also about people. It’s about all of us living together, sharing the planet and taking responsibility for it. It’s about active citizenship, rights and obligations, give and take.

Democracy is also about people. It’s about all of us living together, sharing the planet and taking responsibility for it

As the world becomes more tribal and polarised and the political debate more shallow, it’s no surprise that more and more people are getting fed up with politicians, their quarrels and infighting, their tendency to put party above nation. Their neglect of citizens’ interest. Their corruption, moral and/or pecuniary. Their dominance, their negligence and their egos.

And while everyone’s attention tends to centre on those who follow and vote for the hate-mongers and bigots, there is also another, more heartening global story. It’s about “ordinary” people taking matters into their own hands to work for the common public good. They are doing so through individual initiatives, local action, national movements and global campaigns.

Look carefully: while politicians argue and squabble, it’s the ordinary folk who are shaping and reshaping the world. Whether it’s trying to stop massacres or shelter refugees, cracking down on crime and guns, cleaning up parks and street corners, demanding safe food or fighting for equal opportunities, it’s the story of people, joining forces, putting aside their differences to tackle shared challenges.

Young Americans are taking to the streets to urge an end to gun violence, anti-Brexiteers are actively working to stop Brexit, Hungarians are protesting the policies and actions of Viktor Orbán and many Israelis are calling for peace with Palestinians. Their actions are getting bigger, stronger and more ambitious.

These moves very rarely make the headlines and if they do, they are quickly replaced by more virulent and toxic voices, those who see the world as an unending competition. The nasties make the headlines and actively troll their adversaries on social media. Hate and prejudice gets global attention. But the reality of today’s world is not just about those who insult and offend. It is also about constructive connectivity, of people putting aside their differences and grievances to join hands in the hope of making positive change.

Look carefully: while politicians argue and squabble, it’s the ordinary folk who are shaping and reshaping the world

Like En Marche in France, some movements do have leaders. But mostly these movements are amorphous, messy, volatile and leaderless. Some are short-lived, others live on.

Certainly spontaneous grassroot movements cannot replace well-organised political parties. They are vitally needed, however, to build and maintain open and inclusive societies, to keep politicians on their toes, to name and shame, keep politics more or less clean and drive constructive change. Sometimes their voices are drowned out by harsher clamour. Sometimes ‒ like the #MeToo movement ‒ they can transform old behaviours.

Like authentic and independent journalism, people-led political and social campaigns are vitally important for the survival of democracy. Little surprise then, as in Hungary, Poland, Turkey and Russia, media crackdowns and demonisation of civil society organisations are the unpleasant hallmark of autocrats and illiberals.

As it navigates increasingly treacherous waters, the EU can no longer rely on political parties to push for freedom and democracy, whether at home or abroad. As illustrated by the European People’s Party’s (EPP) leniency towards Orbán, the US Republican Party’s failure to rein in Trump, the party political debates over Brexit or indeed the failure to find a negotiated solution for Catalonia, politicians can no longer be relied on to think first of the public or national interest.

The EU can no longer rely on political parties to push for freedom and democracy

If the EU is serious about the renewal of democracy both in Europe and globally, it must engage more forcefully with non-state actors, including local and regional authorities, business leaders, labour unions and students, women’s groups and representatives of ethnic and religious minorities.

These discussions can no longer be a mere ritual, an after-thought or an obligation. Financial and moral support for pro-democracy groups, both at home and abroad, should be redoubled. Whether at home or outside, European Commissioners and members of the European Parliament must step outside their rarefied bubbles and engage, engage, engage with the demos.

Speeches and brief appearances at conferences and conventions are no longer enough. With elections to the European Parliament around the corner, it’s more and more urgent to change the EU’s rules of public engagement. It’s time to get personal and make emotional connections.

Yes, people are being seduced by populists across the world. But many more are working courageously to stop the global slide into despair. They deserve our support and attention.

GENDER EQUALITY IS ON THE GLOBAL AGENDA BUT CHANGE IS STILL TOO SLOW

This time it’s really different. Or at least it should be. This year’s International Women’s Day on 8 March comes amid an unprecedented global movement for women’s rights, equality and justice.

There’s no getting away from it. Having started in the glamourous world of Hollywood, the #MeToo movement of women demanding an end to sexual harassment and violence has gone global.

Women’s rights are on the agenda of even the most conservative societies. Brave women are coming out with their painful #MeToo stories of abuse but also with demands for changes in laws, traditions and mindsets, which still stand in the way of their right to education, health, jobs, political representation, economic empowerment and more.

But there is no room for complacency. The push-back against women has already begun in many countries. Take your foot off the pedal – even for a minute – and there’s a danger of slippage, of the return to old mindsets and suffocatingly restrictive traditions.

So how can the current momentum for equal rights be maintained? And also, how can the demands for change be turned into policies to ensure that change truly happens?

The push-back against women has already begun in many countries

It’s important to keep up the pressure, to continue the global marches and campaigns and to make sure that equal rights issues continue to trend on social media. It is important to get men involved and to insist, as Hillary Clinton did in Beijing in 1995, that “women’s rights are human rights”. Most of all, it is important to press for new policies, stronger action and strict enforcement.

Even as the momentum for equality picks up speed, three key areas are often neglected.

First, although they represent over a quarter of the world population and a majority of the global agricultural labour force, the rights of women in rural communities are often forgotten.

As underlined by UN Women, less than 20% of landholders worldwide are women. Women in rural areas are paid less than men and lack infrastructure and services, decent work and social protection.

But these women are also challenging stereotypes by using innovative agricultural methods, setting up successful businesses and acquiring new skills, pursuing their legal entitlements and running for office.

Second, despite the UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which recognises that women play an integral role in conflict prevention and resolution, and despite evidence that the chances of lasting peace increase when women are part of peace negotiations, women are still not always given a place at the table in peace-making or the crafting of constitutions.

Between 1992 and 2011, women made up just 9% of negotiators in peace processes, according to a study by UN Women. Also, in spite of much lofty political rhetoric, the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda is one of the most structurally underfunded and under-implemented agendas of the Security Council.

It is time to recognise the role of women entrepreneurs as key development actors

Women can also play a key role in the fight against extremism and radicalisation. Sadly, women and girls are not only victims of systematic sexual violence by extremists but have also become targets of recruiters. Currently women make up at least 20‒30%of foreign terrorist fighters in Syria.

Third, it is time to recognise the role of women entrepreneurs as key development actors. Across the world, women entrepreneurs and innovators are contributing to the jobs and growth agenda and helping to implement Agenda 2030 of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

However, while women entrepreneurs create new businesses, disrupt established industries and develop innovative platforms at a record pace, they still face institutional barriers to starting and growing a business that makes financial parity with male entrepreneurs a long-term challenge.

In the 21st Century, almost all societies pay at least lip service to gender equality and recognise the vital role played by women in society, politics and business. UN resolutions and lip service are not enough, however.

Brave women are stepping up the pressure. They need the support of their families, the wider public and – very importantly ‒ urgent action and enforcement by governments.

When Eurasia meets Indo-Pacific: the brave new world of geopolitics

THANK you, Donald Trump. Uncertainty over the global impact of US president’s America First policy has unleashed an unexpectedly vigorous new “great game” of geopolitical musical chairs as nations rethink their age-old friendships and alliances — and enmities.

True, it’s not just Trump’s unpredictability that is triggering a re-ordering of the post-war, liberal, world order. China’s emergence as a self-confident and assertive “Great Power” is worrying many of its neighbours.

Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU has sparked uncertainties about the future of both Britain itself and of the EU. Russia is playing a secretive game of hide-and-seek with the alleged ambition of further destabilising liberal democracies and their leaders.

Taking their lead from the US president, populists — from both the left and the right of the political spectrum — are enjoying their moment in the sun.

And of course, everywhere you go there are signs of dangerous new power dynamics, strategic repositioning and emerging tensions and conflicts. If The Economist and a swathe of other recent books and articles are to be believed, the world is on the verge of a horrible, full-scale, war.

Certainly, inter-state and intra-state competition and rivalries are getting heated in many parts of the world. With their bitter age-old animosities, Pakistan and India are in a league of their own. North Korea’s “great leader” Kim Jong-un is as unpredictable as the current occupant of the White House.

The wars in Syria and Yemen continue to shock in their cruelty and disregard for the killing of innocent men, women and children. Afghanistan’s hopes of peace are dashed one terrorist attack at a time. And so on.

But these are not the wars that the scaremongers are fretting about. No, it’s about the Third World War, the clash around-the-corner between America and China, which, based on a precedent set by the Peloponnesian Wars of Fifth Century BC between a rising Athens and the established Sparta, pre-ordains that war is inevitable when an emerging power attempts to supplant a hegemonic power in international politics.

Could be. History can and does repeat itself. Harvard Professor Graham Allison’s latest book on the subject, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape the Thucydides Trap?, has received global attention.

On the face of it of course, the stage is set for increased Sino-American rivalry. China’s increased economic, political and diplomatic heft is giving the US a run for its money especially — but not only — in Asia.

America’s new National Security Strategy singles out Russia and China as competitors that have emerged to “challenge American power, influence and interests”. Beijing is also criticised for its aggressive investment and other economic activities — a reference to the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative — and leveraging advanced technologies which, according to Washington, it has often acquired through stealth and theft.

Beijing, meanwhile, is in no mood to be cowed down. President Xi Jinping has made no secret of his quest for Great Power status and a belief that he is leading China into a new era of global influence. In small and big ways, China is seeking to share America’s hitherto overarching Asian presence. For many, Xi’s real plan is to dominate all of Asia.

Which brings us to the “Indo-Pacific”, a term now being used by the US, Japan, Australia and India — which have also set up a so-called “quad” of democratic nations — to describe the region once known as the “Asia Pacific”. For many, it’s about trying to counter China’s growing influence in Asia by recognising India growing eminence and hopes of playing a more powerful political and economic role in the region.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s idea of a quadrilateral security arrangement involving Australia, India, Japan and the US goes hand in hand with his hopes for a “free and open Indo Pacific” seek to link the rising Asian economies with still largely underdeveloped Africa.

It’s not just about zero-sum games and pre-programmed confrontations, however. History can also teach lessons. The European Union, established after World War II, is one example of nations having learned through tragedy and experience that it’s best to avoid the horrors of war. The Association of Southeast Asian Nation (Asean) also sees itself as a peace project.

And it is true that even as they compete and quarrel, most world powers are also engaged in an equally exciting — but less headline-making — game of cooperation and collaboration.

China is balancing its controversial actions in the South China Sea with a charm offensive — and plenty of money — based on its pro-connectivity Belt and Road Initiative. China’s previously tense relations with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines are on the mend. China and Asean are going to start negotiations on a code of conduct for activities in the South China Sea.

Japan and India are working together on connectivity projects in Africa. India and Asean are drawing closer and the EU is working with Japan, India, Asean and China on critical 21st century challenges such as climate change, urbanisation and water management.

For some, the focus should now turn to “Eurasia” as a vast swathe of land encompassing both Asia and Europe but also as a new world order. Bruno Maçães, a Portuguese scholar and former minister, believes that 21st century will not be American or Asian, but rather “Eurasian” — dominated by the interplay of the powers on a Eurasian supercontinent, above all China, Russia and the EU.

Trump has certainly disrupted the way nations have conducted their affairs for over 70 decades. The current disorder and disruption can be scary at time. But they also offer a time for states and people to rethink, reassess and rewrite the rules.

Perhaps the lesson from history is simple: when in doubt, engage — and cooperate.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2018