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23 May 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:54am

The EU can help Europeans rediscover the ties that bind us

Europe is united by common values, but borders and boundaries are crucial too - writes a European Commission vice president. 

By Frans Timmermans

At the end of last year, at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe, I felt the need to reflect on the values that were driving the political discourse of the day. In the midst of the headlines, reactions and counter-reactions, I wanted to think about why the issue was such a difficult one to tackle politically. I put pen to paper with a short book published in my native Dutch, which is now available in English too.

My thoughts first settled on Victor Hugo in 1875, elaborating on the values of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. Hugo saw liberty as a right, equality as a fact and fraternity, or as we might say now, solidarity, as an obligation. He made the point that if we cannot meet our obligation to fraternity then liberty and equality become irrelevant. Because we are all interconnected, the weak must be the concern of the strong and the protection of their rights is a sacred duty. The principle holds just as true for me today.

Yet it seems as though we as a society have forgotten this important lesson. Our world is full of dangers and uncertainties and we are too often paralysed by fear for the future and of others. It’s like walking on a path that is so bumpy that your gaze narrows to the point directly in front of your feet and all you see is that one spot. Our attention is focused solely on the here and now, the next step. We no longer see what is happening around us. This prevents us from looking, feeling or caring.

First comes the notion that we are losing something – jobs, status, identity. Then the argument goes like this: we will get it back and everything will be fixed if we build up walls. This discourse is increasingly setting the terms of the debate in Europe. But building walls will simply not work. That is true for managing the refugee crisis, and it is true within society more generally.

I remain convinced that we can address the refugee crisis if EU countries work better together. We are finally realising the need to take a leap of faith and act together – to better protect external borders, to jointly contribute to taking refugees through resettlement, and to ensure that those with no right to asylum are returned home humanely. If we continue our work to break the sickening business model of people smugglers, by offering safe pathways to protection inside and outside the EU, we’ll get through this together.

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The main reason why progress has been slow is because Europe suffers from a pervasive lack of trust. We have too little trust in our own ability to cope. And too little trust in one another. This makes solidarity difficult. But solidarity is not altruism. Altruism is giving something with no expectations. Solidarity means sharing something because it makes us stronger collectively. And often, it means giving something today because you know solidarity will also be there tomorrow when you need it.

It has struck me that this lack of trust is also what we are seeing within our societies. The last 15 years have been tough on people and our working and middle classes feel that their contribution is constantly being called upon, and what they get in return isn’t always clear. Similarly, in the refugee crisis the self-interest of acting together has been difficult to get across. The understanding that, for the Schengen area, management of the external borders is a common endeavour was not immediately accepted.  

Rebuilding links is also vital in our communities. People today live increasingly separate but parallel lives. But living together should be more than simply existing alongside each other. Global developments will lead to more diverse societies everywhere. We should accept this and make the most of the opportunities while managing the risks. But we need rules and boundaries, as communities also need internal cohesion. With the European Football Championships just around the corner, let me use a football analogy.

Think of a newcomer, a refugee maybe, like someone asking to take part in a football match for the first time. He wants to join in, but he has no idea about the rules, so he spends the entire game in an offside position. Everyone grumbles at him, and after a couple of tries, no one passes him the ball any more. He doesn’t understand what he’s doing wrong and decides that the others just don’t like him. He turns around and walks off. He is more excluded than before he went on the pitch; he feels unwelcome, rejected, and different. This is exactly the wretched position in which many migrants and their children (or grandchildren) have ended up in. Of course he needs to make an effort to learn the rules too, but someone needs to be there to show him what they are.

To regain confidence and move forward rather than backwards we need to remember and strengthen the ties that bind us. We should not build walls between each other, but we should also not fall under the illusion that boundaries should cease to exist. Borders and boundaries matter. They are lines between us that show our differences, and allow us to build connections with each other. Mutual respect begins at the point where one person meets and respects the other’s border.

The starting point for making these connections and rekindling the spirit of solidarity is to build strong, cohesive communities at the local and national level. The European Union’s role in this context is a modest one. We will continue to help tackle issues which cross borders and cannot be dealt with by individual countries acting alone: national where possible, European where necessary. The values of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité have inspired Europe and endured for almost 150 years. Let our generation not be the one that abandons them.

Frans Timmermans is first vice president of the European commission. Community: Discovering ties that bind is published in English by Policy Network

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