EU: The Road Out Of Crisis

Refugees and migrants wait to be registered at the refugee camp near the village of Moria, on the Greek island of Lesbos, Sep
Refugees and migrants wait to be registered at the refugee camp near the village of Moria, on the Greek island of Lesbos, September 13, 2015. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis/File Photo

In 2016, Europe and much of the world are confronted with ever more complex and interconnected social, political, economic and security challenges. Some are still struggling to make sense of what has become a potential unraveling of a multinational institution as solid as the European Union.

Rather than strengthening European unity and cooperation in the face of the challenges faced by its members, there are centrifugal forces tearing Europe apart. Those in England, the so-called Eurosceptics who sowed the seeds of British exit from the EU, have paved the way for a UK much diminished in size and global influence as it approaches the inevitability of an independent Scotland and a reunited Irish Republic.

The cauldron of the Middle East wars and the endemic poverty plaguing much of the African Continent have uprooted more than 60 million people. As many of the uprooted seek shelter and a new life in the old Continent, some European leaders and people have shown great heart in welcoming their fellow humans. Understandably other European leaders and communities have been less generous, reacting often out of ignorance and fear. I do not use the word "understandably" to condone the xenophobic mindset of many in Europe. But in any given society different people act or react differently in similar circumstances.

Today's United States, Canada, Latin American States, Australia and New Zealand were largely created when the religious wars and extreme poverty in Europe prompted a movement of people unmatched in the preceding centuries. Today we are living witnesses to an ongoing and irreversible demographic transformation of Europe; a continuation or repetition of the massive movement of our own ancestors in an earlier age.

No matter how high and thick the walls are, no fortress in Europe can stem the tide of people fleeing wars and poverty. The demographic transformation of Europe from a predominately aging Judeo-Christian continent to a vibrant and younger multiethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural Europe is unstoppable. These phenomena are not always entirely peaceful, and sadly many will suffer immensely. But with wisdom, determination and compassion, Europe can emerge rejuvenated and stronger in the long run.

Even a cursory study of the past and recent events should serve as a stark reminder that empires, regimes, governments, elected and non-elected come and go. From the glittering Roman empires to the Third Reich, the Soviet Union, American triumphalism and, now, the rise of China and India --- all are passing phenomena. Only the people are a permanent feature; some born and surviving in the midst of wars, some starving and dying of poverty in the midst of opulence, but the people will always be there.

Wise leaders design institutions and projects that serve the people. The institutions may adapt as people's needs, desires and priorities evolve and change. But the successful and lasting ones are rooted in serving the needs of the people on the ground.

As no power is eternal, as the strong ruler of today may be the servant of tomorrow, those in power today would be wise to embrace the virtues of humility and compassion, embracing those on the fringes of power and opportunities. Europe --- this region of great nations that accomplished great things for humanity, but also invented the Inquisition, colonialism, slavery and two World Wars -- must reinvent itself as a region of solidarity and compassion, to reconnect with its people, the old and the new.

No one can suggest that European governments "look the other way" on terrorism in their midst. I am not a romantic pacifist who believes that force must never be used. Force is necessary when it is the only option available to prevent genocide. Bosnia, Rwanda, the Killing Fields of Cambodia are just some reminders that non-use of force to prevent genocide and mass atrocities is equivalent to surrender of our morality, a betrayal of the victims.

But the preferred option, where possible, should always be a united effort toward the prevention of conflicts, and dialogue and mediation to settle disputes. When these are actively, creatively and patiently exercised in a timely fashion, more often than not they produce better results.

Applying this to the most pressing of today's conflicts, the conflict in Syria, has been hindered by errors on all sides. The Assad regime erred by not making real efforts in reaching out to those wanting more freedom. The opposition erred in overestimating its own power, refusing to negotiate with the regime, demanding instead its resignation, underestimating the staying power of the Assad regime and failing to account for the fears that inspire the actions of the Alawite minority in power. Europeans and Americans also underestimated the Assad regime and misread the complexities of the Arab Spring. Euphoric with their pyrrhic air campaign against Muhamar Ghadafi of Libya, they believed they could arrange another regime change. All miscalculated. The "consequences" are in the middle of Europe, the hundreds of thousands of Syrians pleading for refuge and shelter.

The other stark reality to be faced is that the fragmentation of the twentieth century European Nation-States is rooted in events more than 20 years ago, when the shaky ground upon which the mighty Soviet Union was erected collapsed. Americans and Western Europeans celebrated the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the demise of the USSR, the end of post-WW2 Yugoslavia. In their euphoria they did not think twice about moving EU and NATO boundaries eastward, ever closer to the gates of the weakened and hungry Russian bear.

Europe must seek to engage Russia and normalize relations. Instead of moving planes, tanks and troops closer to the Russian border, it must seek to understand Russian pride, and the fears and reasons behind their actions. Sound bites about Putin being the new "Russian Tzar" and Russian "expansionism" are not going to help bring back Europe and Russia to normal levels of cooperation.

Europe and Russia cannot continue to drift apart. The factors that the two regions hold in common are far greater than the factors that divide. Together, this vast region, with its endless resources and highly motivated and educated people, working in an honest and innovative partnership for peace and progress, could transform the world.

As always, these things are easier said than done. How can Europe or the US normalize relations with Russia in the face of the annexation of Crimea? How can it deal with the continual tide of refugees seeking to escape conflicts at home in the Middle East?

My best advice to EU members today is to set aside what are, for the time being, irreconcilable differences, reengage each other, explore areas and ideas of common interest, namely on how best to address the global economic and financial crisis, bring an end to the Syria conflict, address the refugee crisis both in its humanitarian dimension and political and economic dimensions; address extremism and terrorism in a united manner, both through sharp intelligence and prudent action and through understanding and resolving the root causes.

There are no short cuts to peace; we build peace in our homes, families, villages, towns, block by block. Peace is the work of patient and dedicated people with missionary zeal, people who have empathy for those who suffer the most: women, children, elderly. Peacemakers must have heart and compassion.

Europe is at a crossroads. The challenges are daunting. But Europeans faced greater challenges in the past. Its people regrouped, reconciled and rebuilt a greater Europe after WWII. They can do it again, and do better still. They can once again inspire us, by being at the true forefront of peacebuilding in a time of crisis. Excerpted from keynote speech by Nobel Peace Laureate J. Ramos-Horta at the Annual Security Review Conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, held in Vienna, 28 June.

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