Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
As I write this blog, Europeans are holding their breath to know if tomorrow people in the United Kingdom will choose for their country to remain in the European Union (EU) or to leave.
This matters to me now not only because the UK is my adoptive country (I am Italian, but have lived in the UK for six years, taken citizenship and married a British man – who by the way has asked me to point out that he is “not one of those nationalist idiots”). It is also closely related to the subject of the course I am currently studying at the Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.
We are only in week 2 of this 12 weeks-course and I have already heard the facilitators referring many times to post-World War II Europe as a positive example of “positive peace” and “conflict transformation”. This is exactly what I’ve thought for years, even when I didn’t know those geeky intimidating terms. How fascinating, encouraging and heartlifting was the story of the European Union (or European Economic Community, as it was initially called)! A story of countries deciding to set aside their differences (or their “dividers”, as peace building practitioners call them) to build on their shared interests, values and customs (or “connectors”). Far from being perfect, the EU gradually grew with the inclusion of more and more countries, and became a model of integration and peace.
But what is it left of that model now? If tomorrow “Brexit” (as the possibility of the UK leaving the EU is commonly referred to) becomes a reality, the fuse will be set for the EU to implode. Already, far right parties have been promoting xenophobic rhetoric and nationalist discourses in many European countries. Migrants and refugees are being demonized, rejected or segregated, including as a consequence of an inhuman deal that the EU signed with Turkey a few months ago. The values of tolerance, solidarity and respect of human rights which the EU founding fathers promoted are being forgotten, if not crushed.
These are not just negative thoughts. Just a week ago, a progressive British MP active in defending refugees’ rights and in fighting Brexit was shot dead by a nationalist extremist. If the tide does not turn, soon the most catastrophic scenario could materialize, with political violence, authoritarianism and conflicts making their way back to Europe.
I obviously hope that by the time this blog is published, it will become irrelevant. But even if, as I hope, British people decide to “remain” in the EU, the fracture that the referendum has opened will not suddenly be closed over. By promoting concepts of “otherness” and “taking back control”, the referendum campaign has already done enough damage in public opinion and the political arena. A vote to “remain” would certainly be good news, but it would not be enough.
In the UK, as in all European countries, there is the need to “take back values” instead of national powers. Respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. These values, which now seem to have been left just on paper, need to become the real guide for the European Union and its member states.
For the EU to continue being a good example of peace building, the path is clear. Stopping sending asylum-seekers back to Turkey and resettling far more refugees, halting the arms trade with countries engaged in or sponsoring armed conflicts and effectively implementing the Paris climate change agreement are unavoidable first steps. Anything less than that will confine the EU experiment to the history books.
Chiara Liguori – Italy
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 21