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It can’t just be about strong statements, historical references or fact and figures – however powerful.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.