EU’s system of values should not be allowed to weaken

EU’s system of values should not be allowed to weaken

Above, a view of the fortress in Salzburg with a light installation to mark the Europe Day. (AFP)

Europe Day was celebrated last week amid growing fears that the EU project and its cherished system of values are under threat. Preparations for the European Parliament elections later this month are exposing some of the cracks in the bloc, as well as within some of its member states. Questions have been raised about its concept of integration and especially the value system that it has evolved since 1950, with some declaring that the EU is a pragmatic alliance, not a union of values.

Europe Day commemorates the “Schuman Declaration,” the first building block of the EU, when French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman proposed, on May 9, 1950, the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community to coordinate the policies of six coal and steel producers (Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and West Germany).

From that humble beginning 69 years ago, a mammoth supranational EU eventually evolved. From the start, some key European politicians had in mind a grand vision to go beyond the limited idea of a coal and steel coordination body. In 1950, just five years after the end of the Second World War, Europe was still struggling to overcome the devastation of the largest and deadliest war in human history.

Although it was the most catastrophic war ever, the Second World War was just the last in a long history of conflicts that pitted European nations against one another, and pitted ethnic and religious groups against each other. The horrors of the industrial-scale slaughter and destruction of that war pushed European governments and citizens to find an alternative to war to achieve their goals. The Schuman Declaration makes that objective clear.

It made the case that economic integration, or the merging of economic interests, could help prevent the next war, while also raising living standards and supporting prosperity. “The solidarity in production thus established will make it plain that any war between France and Germany becomes not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible,” it states. The new “powerful productive unit, open to all countries willing to take part and bound ultimately to provide all the member countries with the basic elements of industrial production on the same terms, will lay a true foundation for their economic unification.”

However, while war prevention and economic integration marked the beginning of the unity project, soon thereafter European leaders introduced political goals to cement the solidarity and cohesion of the new entity. Influenced by the massive scale of human rights violation in Europe that came with the rise of fascism, Nazism and communism, and which reached its pinnacle during the Second World War, Europeans became aware of the need to safeguard civil and political rights, including freedom of expression, thought and association, due process of the law, the protection of minorities, and free and fair elections.

European values are especially meaningful because they were born out of necessity, as an antidote to centuries of devastating wars

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

Over decades, EU “values” as a concept evolved and several treaties bound its member states to a set of principles. The main goal of the EU, it was said, was to defend these values in Europe and promote peace and the well-being of citizens. The European Parliament sought to ensure that those values were enabled through legislation.

The Treaty of Lisbon of 2009 spelled out the fundamental values of Europe based on recognition of the universal citizens’ rights, as well as political, economic and social rights. These values included equality of treatment: Nobody may be discriminated against because of gender, race or ethnicity. Everybody must be treated fairly. Minority rights and gender equality must be respected by law. Those values had been outlined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights, to be implemented by all EU members, subject to oversight by the European Parliament, the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights.

For us in this region, and perhaps to the rest of the world, Europe and the EU in particular represent a system of values that we have aspired to reach; not just a high level of economic and social integration that the rest of the world has envied and sought to replicate.

European values are especially meaningful because they were born out of necessity, as an antidote to centuries of devastating wars. European philosophers — from Plato to John Locke and Immanuel Kant to name just a few — wrote glorious treatises on natural law, moral law and the values of peace, tolerance and rule of law. But it was the real-life experience of brutal warfare, which took tens if not hundreds of millions of lives, that finally persuaded Europeans to lay down their swords and try a new life based on tolerance and human rights.

It is that baptism by fire that made “European values” attractive to us in the region and to the rest of the world: If Europe, with its checkered history of hatred and mayhem, can cure itself, then any region and country could resolve its own internal and external disputes by finding common ties that bind them with the “others.” The Middle East has suffered a lot without an end in sight, and the European experience brings hope.

As a beacon to troubled regions around the world, the European system of values, with EU institutions as its guardians, should not be allowed to weaken. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of some political parties and candidates running in the European Parliament elections runs antithetical to those values. Extreme and populist candidates are drumming up xenophobia and fear of refugees and migrants, and in the process undermining the commitment to those values that have made Europe unique.

• Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1

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