Challenge for Europe By Shada Islam - Saturday, March 05, 2011

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THE European Union was slow to recognise the historical significance of the Arab uprising/awakening on its southern doorstep. The French government was by far the worst, with many of its top officials including former foreign minister Michele Alliot-Marie, offering ‘technical assistance’ and equipment to deal with the popular demonstrations to Tunisian security forces.

Italian politicians, including Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, have been just as deplorable in their support of the grumpy — and tyrannical — old men of North Africa. As the situation in Libya becomes grimmer, with reports indicating that a real civil war is now raging in the country, the EU is finally taking some much-needed — albeit belated — action to ease the humanitarian suffering in Libya.

EU unity has been found on sanctions against Col Muammar Qadhafi and his family, the EU has earmarked 10 million euros in humanitarian aid to refugees stranded on Libya’s borders with Tunisia and Egypt while Britain and France are creating an air and sea bridge to take some of the Egyptian refugees back to their homes.

Such gestures of ‘generosity’ are encouraging. But Europe now also needs a new strategy to deal with the influx of North African refugees arriving on its shores. This is not the moment for hand-wringing over the large number of new arrivals, irresponsible talk of an ‘invasion’ from the south or laments over the failure of multiculturalism in Europe.

Urgent and intelligent measures are needed to help southern European countries provide better treatment to the new arrivals. This means more EU assistance for Italy and other southern European states and a quick agreement on a share-out of the refugees.The EU’s humanitarian operations are laudable but Europe has acquired an unfavourable reputation worldwide for the cold welcome it extends to many foreigners. Strict Schengen visa requirements hit foreign business leaders, students and artists.

This is a chance to prove that ‘Fortress Europe’ can open its doors to those in trouble. It is also about being a good neighbour.

Clearly, the Italian government — and others like Malta, Greece and Spain — cannot be left alone to deal with the problem.

Italy’s Interior Minister Roberto Maroni says his country could soon found itself “on its knees” if the refugee “invasion”
continues. He has asked for a solidarity fund to assist countries that are the first to absorb the influx of refugees. However, not for the first time, EU states are divided.

Perhaps Germany, Sweden and others are correct in saying that they have taken their share of asylum-seekers in the past, without complaining too loudly. And maybe, Germans and others are just annoyed with more racist moaning by a right-wing Italian governmnent.

However, unless Europe gets its act together fast on how it intends to deal with the influx of North Africans, its image as an inward-looking bloc will get even more entrenched in global circles. Perhaps EU policymakers should pay heed to Mustapha Nabli, Tunisia’s newly appointed central bank governor, when he says that instead of crumbling under pressure, Europe could in fact benefit from the wave of new workers. “So it is a positive sum game, it is not a negative sum game,” he says.

It’s a point worth making — but one that is unlikely to find an echo in today’s Europe. In remarks that have reverberated across the world, British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Sarkozy have said Europe’s experience in building a multicultural society has been a failure.

The three EU leaders are right to question the bloc’s patchy history of integration. But they make no constructive suggestions to improve the situation. And they put the onus on immigrants to melt in or get out. However, European governments have not done enough to embrace and promote diversity, enforce anti-discrimination legislation and create a more inclusive labour market. The reality of multicultural Europe is less gloomy than Merkel and others claim. Across Europe, Muslims and other minorities are becoming more active in demanding rights, organising themselves into pressure groups and emerging as influential politicians, entrepreneurs and cultural and sports icons.

This new generation of European Muslims believes it important to focus on citizenship and integration rather than on religious identity alone. The irony is also that while politicians fret about immigration and foreigners, low fertility rates and an ageing population mean that Europe needs young foreign workers to fill labour shortages in both the skilled and unskilled sectors of the economy and to fund Europe’s creaking pension and healthcare systems.

It’s easy to consider tough new frontier controls, repatriation schemes and other measures to keep out North Africa’s refugees. But EU policymakers should also focus on job-generating investments in the region, come up with a more intelligent common immigration policy and possibly seek changes to the Dublin Convention to ease current pressure on first-arrival border states. Waking up to the people’s revolution on Europe’s doorstep, European Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso said recently, “it is our duty to say to the Arab peoples that we are on their side”.

Barroso said Europeans remembered their own experiences in fighting for democracy — in southern Europe, in central and eastern Europe. EU aid in future would focus on promoting democracy, the rule of law and respect for fundamental rights, inclusive social development and a strengthened and thriving civil society, he said.

And so it should. EU leaders speak loudly and often about projecting European values of democracy and human rights. It’s worth remembering the people of North Africa are voicing these very aspirations.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.

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