The Future of the European Union: between Fact and Fiction

by Paula Mendez Keil

In July, the 2011 Europaeum annual International Conference on The Futures of Europe: Which Way Towards 2030 gathered leading experts and policy makers from around Europe in the fields of economics, politics, sociology, history, and law. The premise was to discuss the viability of the European Union not only as a global player, but also as a region that is facing evermore pressing problems of economic and political integration. Among the challenges that were highlighted were the realities that challenge European integration, such as demography, nationalism, and the welfare state, and in turn their human rights implications.

Much of the dialogue at the conference centered around the demographic crisis of the region. The ‘graying of Europe,’ as it’s referred to, is affecting national job markets and the EU’s overall competitiveness in the global economy. As one of the regions with the lowest birth-rates in the world, decreasing mortality rates, and an ageing population overall, Europe is seeing itself regress into a more closed and less dynamic society. These trends have two very serious implications: a national brain-drain backlash effect and a push towards ‘positive migration’ policies. On the one hand, countries in the region are facing growing waves of emigration, particularly among the higher educated youth, who find themselves searching for research opportunities abroad that are usually better funded by governments such as the U.S. and Canada. On the other hand, there has been an upsurge in discriminatory migration policies, disguised under the notion of ‘positive migration’, which specifically target immigrants such as Latin-Americans in Spain, Muslims in France, Switzerland and Belgium, and the Roma in Italy. Some examples are increased labour and rental market barriers for immigrants, burqa and minaret bans, and systematic police raids of Roma or traveller settlements, all of which can be seen as grave infringements upon the human rights of marginalized and disadvantaged groups.

Throughout the conference there was a general consensus on the need for a new European narrative; shifting from a Eurocentric image of the region as the ‘last bastion’ for liberal political views, to a post-Western order characterized by a more realistic and cautious promotion of universal human rights, especially in light of the Arab Spring. Given this ideological thrust towards inclusiveness and tolerance, it is a sad reality that protectionism and defensive policies persist. The recent Norwegian terrorist attacks are a case in point, demonstrating how home-grown nationalism is leading down the beaten path of xenophobia and racism. Increasingly Europe faces growing tensions between utopias of cultural convergence and hard realities of exclusionary divergence. If human rights standards are the basis of a common European identity, how then can we explain the ever-growing intolerance bred by rampantly discriminatory policies? The history of humanity is remarkable for its very resilience and Europe will have to demonstrate its strength through progressive integration which respects the very same fundamentals it seeks to promote around the world.

About the Author:

Paula Mendez Keil is a 2011 Research Intern at the International Council on Human Rights Policy. She is currently completing a Master’s in International Affairs at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

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