Europe once welcomed me. Today, I fear it would not – and that’s a threat to all of us

OpinionEuropean Union

Shada Islam

Shada Islam

Across the EU, far-right ideas are becoming mainstream while refugees and Muslims are demonised. But change is still possible Thu 21 Sep 2023 12.00 BST

Iarrived in Brussels four decades ago as a student, scarred by the legacy of two deadly wars between India and Pakistan, and their constant enmity. I was ready to be seduced by a story of peace and cooperation – of former enemies reconciled by trade and pooled sovereignty. The EU and me were a perfect fit.

Improbable as it may sound, Belgium drew me in, loved me back. University life was multicultural and exciting. Fulfilling a long-held dream, I became a reporter and started covering, later writing and commenting on, EU foreign policy and Europe’s global trade and aid policies.

The EU “project” and the centrality the bloc’s founding principles give to democracy, the rule of law and human rights still fill me with admiration. But increasingly the gut-wrenching moments are more frequent than the inspiring ones as I watch the dangerous erosion of an open and progressive Europe.

A Eurocentric, xenophobic and inward-looking Europe is at risk of replacing the hopeful vision that once inspired me and so many people around the world.

Evenhandedness in dealing with human rights violations has been replaced by selective moral outrage. The EU levels justified criticism at ChinaMyanmar and many African nations but turns a blind eye to Israeli policies against Palestinians or India’s actions against many of its Muslim citizens.

Instead of focusing on building what the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, promised would be a “union of equality”, the EU appears to have set an informal hierarchy of rights. Why else would European Muslims be still waiting for a dedicated “strategy” to combat Islamophobia (or anti-Muslim hatred, as Brussels officials call it) even though EU equality action plans already exist for every other minority group? And why at the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine would leading EU politicians and parts of the media make it clear they distinguished between Ukrainian refugees, who deserved – and received – a warm welcome and others from Asia and Africa, who did not?

Ukrainian refugees at the border with Poland, 9 April 2022
Ukrainian refugees at the border with Poland, 9 April 2022. Photograph: Amy Katz/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

Hungary and Poland are rightly criticised for breaching EU rule-of-law provisions on media freedoms, fighting corruption and judicial independence. The same governments’ racist hate speech gets a pass, however. After the horrific murder of schoolteacher Samuel Paty in 2020, Amnesty International had to warn French authorities to stop contributing to a “portrayal of all Muslims as suspects” and to end the “stereotypical, stigmatising and discriminatory comments targeting Muslims and refugees”.

This is certainly not an indication that the EU is morphing into a fascist bloc. But neither can anyone be complacent when democracy and the rule of law, the core conditions of EU membership, are hijacked and violated by the likes of Viktor Orbán and Giorgia Meloni.

The tragedy of Europe today is that so many mainstream leaders and politicians have either embraced far right views and rhetoric, brought the far right into government or allowed their views to determine policy. It seems almost quaint to recall that in 2000 Austria was hit with EU sanctions because the anti-immigrant politician Jörg Haider had been brought into the governing coalition. In 2017, the same far right Freedom party that Haider had led was embraced as a coalition member. From other EU capitals, there was radio silence.

Nor did any EU government openly voice discomfort as Sweden ran its 2023 “presidency” of the EU with a minority centre-right coalition government, supported and influenced by the far-right Sweden Democrats. Meanwhile, at the European parliament, there are disquieting signs that leaders of the centre-right EPP group are seeking a coalition with the ECR, a rightwing group headed by Meloni. This means that after the next elections in 2024, far-right politicians or those who embrace their views could dominate the parliament.

Far-right leaders are setting many parts of the EU agenda. Aggressive migration policies that include the illegal pushback of refugees, and are grounded in racist, demonising narratives, are increasingly favoured by mainstream European leaders.

Refugees accompanied by a Frontex vessel arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos, 28 February 2020
Refugees accompanied by a Frontex vessel arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos, 28 February 2020. Photograph: Michael Varaklas/AP

A disgraceful “cash for migrants” deal struck recently with Tunisia was unveiled by Meloni and the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, alongside Von der Leyen, who said the agreement could be a “model” for similar EU pacts with other countries. While Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat responsible for foreign affairs, has expressed the “incomprehension” of some member states at the deal, his objections seem more about process than policy direction.

But there is a broader responsibility for the loss of the EU’s collective moral compass. Sections of the media have helped to amplify “charismatic” figures on the political fringes – whether by describing the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen as a “blonde bombshell”, or failing to challenge the views of far-right populist Thierry Baudet in the Netherlands. True, there were well-attended Black Lives Matter protests in many European cities in 2020. Yet public inertia about the constant dehumanisation of refugees and discrimination against Muslims is a sign of the dangerous normalisation of once taboo ideas.

The far right is not alone in obstructing the EU’s modest efforts to implement anti-racism action plans, eliminate structural discrimination – including police violence against brown and black European citizens – and make EU institutions more diverse and inclusive. Sadly, “Brussels so white” isn’t just a hashtag: it is an accurate label for bodies that remain predominantly Eurocentric and white.

I’m often asked why I care so much. It is probably because I remember an earlier, more principled era when governments appeared less driven by geopolitical imperatives. The EU flatly rejected, for example, the flawed logic of an inevitable “clash of civilisations” in the aftermath of George W Bush’s post-9/11 call for a “crusade” against terrorism. Perhaps it is also because I know of the different ways in which the EU continues to offer hope to struggling democracies and to human rights activists, and how it supports vulnerable groups in Afghanistan and elsewhere. And while historical amnesia certainly persists, it is encouraging to see some European governments begin to recognise and voice regret at their inglorious colonial past and their part in the trade of enslaved people.

Some have started to argue that “Europeanness” as an identity is intrinsically tied to whiteness or a heritage of Christianity, which means that people of colour can never be accepted as “European”. Yet, despite questions about where I am “really” from, I have no intention of relinquishing my claim to be counted as a European, hyphenated and proudly multicultural.

Restoring Europe’s moral compass cannot be left to a few organisations or individuals. It requires courageous, progressive leadership and the collective mobilisation of all – and I cling to the belief that it is the majority – who want to live in a tolerant, inclusive Europe.

  • Shada Islam is a Brussels-based commentator on EU affairs
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