Chair's speech to European Economic Forum, Krynica, Poland 6 September 2018

European Identity - Fact or Myth?

We all have multiple identities, whether we are the children of immigrants some several generations back or where our accident of birth places us linguistically and culturally and with a nationality and allegiance which may have changed, sometimes constantly (as with Alsace-Lorraine) with the vicissitudes of history, yet these are complementary and not mutually exclusive. We can be Welsh, British and European all at once.

I wish to look at the two aspects to which this Forum directs us: values and interests and whether there is a European commonality.

European values and interests are both evolving all the time as is the national identity of the states. Through migration, changing norms of societal behaviour, changes in religious affiliation, increased exposure to other values, cultures and cuisine the profile of all our states is changing. For some of our citizens, that is uncomfortable as the familiar territory of only a few years ago is now very different. That has manifested itself in concern about the unequal distribution of benefit through globalisation, scapegoating migrants and a reaction to the multi-cultural society in which our citizens find themselves. There is no doubt that main motivations for those who voted for Britain to leave the EU were not so much about the common rules and regulations, membership of Galileo and the Medicines’ Agency (incidentally based in London and responsible for the scientific evaluation, supervision and safety monitoring of medicines in the EU which started operating in 1995 – long after we joined the EU) to name but two but was about a sense of disenfranchisement seeing London’s economic growth unequal to that of other parts of the UK and the rapid change in certain parts of the country through immigration.

There is always a counter-intuition about this debate as, on one hand, there is the fear of migration changing the established norms, habits and way of life (often stimulated through sometimes unconscious and subliminal but deeply seated racism) and, on the other hand, the recognition that migrant workers are essential for our health and social services, and for manual labour in construction, hospitality and those physically demanding agricultural needs for picking fruit and vegetables that, sometimes stereotypically but often backed by hard evidence, our so-called indigenous workers are not prepared to undertake. That is partly due to a British education system that has valued office and academic work above manual skilled and semi-skilled labour. It is also partly due to foreign workers from countries with a lower standard of living and less sophisticated social security systems having a different work ethic of being prepared to work long hours, live in cheap and close proximity accommodation and, until recently, with an exchange rate that made remittances a real difference for families back home. It is a hunger to succeed and to fend for their families as a matter of pride as well as practicality which sets an ethical standard that others have lost. We need to learn from migrants and refugees rather than patronising or sidelining them.

What shared values/interests existed when Europe lay battered and broken in 1945 after the second great European conflagration in most people’s lifetime? Yet the determination to build a better Europe and a better world had been conceived earlier than that. The result was the longest period of European peace for hundreds of years from 1945 until 1991 (the Balkan conflict reminding us that genocide and war crimes are still po

Beyond economic considerations there are changing social mores – which many of us would applaud but which are of deep concern to others whose religion or moral code may not favour such changes. 600 years ago these values were enshrined in the hegemony of the Roman Catholic religion but these are now challenged not by a schism or Protestantism but by growing secularism. The revolution in recognition of discrimination against women and ethnic groups, LGBTI rights and the availability of civil partnerships and same-sex marriages may have been brewing for a long time, and many have the campaign scars to prove it, but these changes have been rapid and, therefore, disconcerting to those who like to recognise the scenery around them. In many cases, many societies have been equally unprepared for these changes as they have been in seeing an increase in migration and that fault must lie partly at the door of governments. So much more could have been done by forward thinking politicians using a variety of resources to assist such transformation rather than merely echoing the concerns often for short-term political populist gain. The good practice that I saw many years ago with Strathclyde Council which was preparing to take a number of asylum-seeking families and had produced leaflets as well as public meetings explaining where they were from, their special needs etc has not been replicated nearly enough. It all came to nought, by the way, because the Government decided at the last moment to change the terms and this rendered the proposal inoperable by the Council. It is chilling, against this background, that Ipsos Mori’s annual ‘veracity index’ has found public faith in politicians, institutions and companies to deliver social benefit is not only at a low ebb, especially among the young, but has seen a “precipitous drop”.

If we look at common trends now in much of Europe they include a demonstration of these sensitivities – a move to the political right and intolerance of migrants, especially asylum seekers, a growth of nationalism and retreat into introversion and a shift away from a belief in international co-operation, including free trade, as a way of improving the condition of the people. Often this translates itself into anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia being a fear of difference and seeming threat. Apart from the UK (which remains one of the most tolerant countries), we see the current crisis in Chemnitz in Germany, the attitude of Hungary and Italy towards migrants, the rise of nationalism in Poland and other countries and, now, even Sweden and a sense of disillusion with the EU and especially the euro. Increasingly, these political views will come into conflict with religious ones – not least as all the major religions embrace a welcome to the stranger and charity to the poor and needy.

This is disturbing, not least because of the lessons of history as to what destination such trends can lead, but even in the absence of the toxic mix of high inflation, high unemployment and stagnant growth. There are also economic consequences of loss of financial confidence which could carry contagion outside Europe: Italy’s massive debt (equivalent to 130% of national income), over-reliance on an increasingly reluctant Germany to bail out the euro, and end to quantitative easing and a population so saddled with debt (especially on housing) and no reserves that many resort to unscrupulous pay-day lending schemes. Thanks to the uncertainty over Brexit the UK has seen business investment down £22 billion from what it would have been – at a time when investment in infrastructure and training is so necessary for productivity. All this, coupled with arguably an over-valued asset market, is a recipe for forthcoming woe. The world, let alone Europe, cannot afford to have Europe implode.

It is the fate and inelegance of most politicians always to be fighting today’s battles and problems with yesterday’s weapons and not able to anticipate what may come unlike Churchill who, in his own words, tried to "peer through the mists of the future to the end of the war", once victory had been achieved, and think about how to re-build and maintain peace on a shattered continent. 

We are asked to examine whether we have a Europe of Common Values or a Europe of Common Interests? This underpins another debate between religious values and political interests which creates its own tensions. Can they be reconciled? Yet to ask the question misunderstands the debate. Religious values underpin most political philosophies even if their provenance is not acknowledged.

What shared values/interests existed when Europe lay battered and broken in 1945 after the second great European conflagration in most people’s lifetime? Yet the determination to build a better Europe and a better world had been conceived earlier than that. The result was the longest period of European peace for hundreds of years from 1945 until 1991 (the Balkan conflict reminding us that genocide and war crimes are still possible in Europe).

Europe has shown itself adept at formalising and enshrining in written standards those values that were so obvious to civilised living in the wake of the World Wars. Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, a leading British Conservative politician who had been one of the prosecutors at Nuremberg was instrumental in drafting a large part of the Council of Europe’s Convention on Human Rights – a scope whose 47 countries, of course, encompasses a far wider reach than the EU, stretches from Albania and Armenia to Georgia, Turkey, Ukraine and Russia taking it far beyond the Urals and includes 820 million people. It enshrines the common values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Article 1 of its Statute speaks “of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are their common heritage and facilitating their economic and social progress.”

These core values and their more detailed emanations as well as their counterparts in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – that Eleanor Roosevelt hoped would become a global Magna Carta – may have had their roots in Judaeo-Christian philosophy but they were enshrined in secular language and so became exportable universally around the world. We recall their dismissal by Mr Mahathir and some others as alien Western concepts and a possible re-emergence of "Asian values" championed by Lee Kuan Yew but they are now accepted as norms that have a global reach. It is true that the East produced a different strand of thought in Confucianism and authoritarianism which is now challenging the utility of democracy in providing wellbeing for the people. It is true, also, that the concentration on individual rights and responsibilities is different from the greater regard given to collective groups but respect for the dignity and safeguarding of the individual is now interwoven with concepts of rights for groups such as in the criminalisation of genocide.

The Foreign Policy Centre in its publication “The rise of illiberal civil society in the former Soviet Union?” examines the growing influence of illiberal, anti-Western and socially conservative civil society groups, popular movements and political forces in five post-Soviet states: Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Moldova. It finds that illiberal social attitudes remain prevalent across the region, particularly in relation to LGBTI rights, and they are increasingly used as the focus of political and public mobilisation within these societies, particularly against EU-backed equalities legislation. 

This rise of illiberal values, populism and faith in authoritarianism as it gains support is in danger of becoming described as post democratic almost as if it is a natural political evolution. This is dangerous. In his recent book “Asian Waters” Humphrey Hawksley, former BBC correspondent in the Far East, points out the public perception of the comparative economic success of China and the growth of gross domestic product under an authoritarian system compared with the social poverty and failure to increase the standard of living among millions of its citizens in India, the most numerous global democracy. It is clear that democracy comes often at a high economic price but that fails to put a value on freedom of thought, speech and association. In a recent radio programme about Taiwan I remarked how the Chinese are seeking to woo young Taiwanese entrepreneurs by offering them increased wages, preferential treatment and the ability to set up companies in mainland China without charge and showing how the Chinese economic growth is superior to that in Taiwan. Yet many of those Taiwanese who were interviewed, while taking advantage of these benefits, also recognised that the freedoms to which they were used were not available in China (not least access to the internet and outside news), and many recognised that these were of greater value than present prosperity.

Let us be clear about our terms. Populism is bolshevism and undemocratic unless it can understand and accommodate opposition and allow the minority to have a voice. Some governments are always in danger of failing to appreciate that governance is for not just those who voted for them but for all the people. Narrow minded nationalism leads to xenophobia and a sense of national superiority which can go far beyond laudable patriotism to sheer jingoism typified by the words of many national anthems (“qu’un sang impur”, “uber alles”) and other ditties such as “Rule Britannia”. We should remember that Europe had its experimentation with both communism and fascism in the last century, which left it scarred, especially in Poland, and they were not a success. We must be careful that we do not sleep-walk into having to learn the lessons of history a second time. People in poverty are desperate for economic security but we know that this cannot be traded for human rights without ultimate terrible cost. It is the responsibility of democratic governments through their policies to avoid that conflict.

By their very membership of the Council the states accept scrutiny of their internal affairs. In the rest of the world such dismantling of the mantra of the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which essentially enshrined the incompetence of states to interfere in the internal affairs of each other, took longer and is in living memory in terms of international legitimacy with the Nuremberg and other tribunals at the end of the Second World War, advent of international crimes encapsulated in the Rome Statute of the ICC of 1998, the concept of Responsibility to Protect introduced by the late Kofi Annan in 2005 and, of course, the now de facto intervention of states individually or collectively in many parts of the world.

It remains alarming that there are still so many people who cannot distinguish the Council from the EU. Arguably, in the UK, one of the greatest arguments for Leavers was the desire to regain sovereignty and much anger has been directed against the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (the creature of the Council) when the true bile was meant to be directed against the European Court based in Luxembourg.

I receive the daily briefings from the OSCE on the monitoring of freedom of speech, incarceration and restriction on journalists, human rights and all incidences in the unhappy Donblas region of Donetsk and Luhansk in which I have a particular interest having been to Kiev and in Dnipropetrovsk been part of the monitoring team for the Presidential election.

I trust that I have given some explanation of European common values, especially in recent times, but what of interests? They, like values, have changed with the times. For most of the last millennium those interests were in deep competition as different countries vied with each other for global empires or were consumed among themselves over territorial and religious conflicts. It would have been difficult at any stage to discern a common interest.  That changed some seventy years ago after those countries, showing that common values were insufficient to avert conflict, discovered that the only way forward was to share a common interest in peace and trade.  Although history shows that close trading partners can still go to war with each other that is greatly reduced by closer economic integration exemplifying common interests. We are seeing that played out in the Brexit debate in the UK. It is instructive that the vision of Altiero Spinelli, Monnet, Schumann and Churchill for a united states of Europe was first translated into practical effect by the European Coal & Steel Community and Euratom – giving transnational control over the principal materials needed for waging war. We now live in the greatest trading bloc in the world. Of course, that requires some surrender of sovereignty but even the most nationalist of countries understands that pooling sovereignty can lead to a greater, not lesser, influence. We all have pooled sovereignty in so many ways by belonging to different treaties - NATO is the most extreme in which an attack on Latvia will be taken to be an attack on the UK and we should go to war - you cannot trade much more sovereignty than that! 

Security is a major common interest in combating terrorism and cyber crime and requires enormous co-operation between security forces, the police, Interpol and sharing information. Moreover, if the USA is serious about withdrawing more from Europe and concentrating on its Pacific hinterland then, increasingly, Europe will need to find its own solutions. These are matters requiring collective action and not state individualism.

We are living in an interconnected world in which communications, transportable skills and, indeed, cyber attacks no longer respect national boundaries which, in any event, have often been determined historically by flawed treaty, territorial aggrandisement and decolonisation rather than conscious community based on culture, custom, language and religion. It is now cheaper to travel large distances as a component of overall costs than at any time in history. This is not a time for separation but for coming together and exploiting what we have in common rather than what divides us.

There will continue to be many areas in which common interests will not prevail and it is wrong to try to impose unanimity – sometimes foreign affairs and certainly much domestic policy will not be seen as of universal common interest – they should be allowed autonomy and not an enforced collective view. After centuries of internal conflict, however, often drawing in much of the rest of the planet, the creation of a Europe of common interests has been one of the greatest achievements in the world. Its common purpose and institutions are used as a model for regional co-operation elsewhere in the world such as with the African Union. It is a precious jewel that we must keep and develop at all costs. For the sake of ourselves and our children we must rebuild trust in international co-operation and institutions otherwise both humanity and our environment will pay the price.

Keith Best

Chair & Chief Executive Wyndham Place Charlemagne Trust