Ukraine, European elections and conflict resolution
In the last couple of weeks close to a hundred –mostly young– men have lost their lives in a political conflict in Ukraine. The narrative of the opposition related to Europe. Europe, a geographic entity. Europe, an economic union. Europe a project of political cooperation. But Europe is much more, and to the opposition in Ukraine, “Europe” stood and stands for something else.
Europe as a value system
I received a message, an open letter, from some youth representatives in Ukraine in which they clarified their position and their ambitions. Their message was strongly stated. They want to belong to a Europe that represents a value system. A Europe that represents democratic values and a space where freedom of speech and other fundamental values are respected and guaranteed. When I read the open letter it reminded me of the early days of the Arab Spring. The civil uprising, the aspirations of the youth, the adherence to fundamental basic human rights, the hope to be able to join the European space. Not the economic space, not the “geographic or political cooperation” space but something more, more fundamental and more important.
The open letter went on to explain that the youth in Europe, in the UK, Belgium, France and Holland seem to be critical of the Europe that has been built by their parents. Europe criticized by the youth, for the bureaucracy, the economic crisis, the reduction of national space and many others. But, the letter says, if you criticize Europe for all of that, you are missing the point! The opposition in Ukraine does not want to be part of the European space for any of those aspects. Neither the economy, nor the governance, is the issue. From their perspective Europe is something else. The essence of Europe is the very fact that the youth in the UK, Belgium, France and Holland can openly be critical of it and therefore have a say in its future and the way they can contribute to further improvements.
The letter goes even beyond this and claims that the youth in Europe is spoiled. They, the youngsters in Europe, have not had the struggle, to fight and potentially die, for freedom and democracy. They got it on a silver platter and all they can do is criticize it, and what is more, criticize it for the wrong reasons.
Have we lost sight of the real value of Europe?
I’m not sure. The reasons for criticism may be genuine and authentic. The fear of losing identity and national authority may be a tangible issue. The economic climate is also certainly less advantageous for this generation than it was ten years ago. But then again the authors of the letter may have also touched upon the real point: Have we lost sight of the real value of Europe? Have the leaders failed to communicate the real accomplishments in the European space? Do some of us take the peace and human rights we enjoy for granted? Do we talk “money” too much? Do we chase after progress in monetary terms instead of immaterial terms too often? Is that the price we pay, now that the peace dividend is in our basket?
Europe as a conflict resolution system
If that is so, we should let the Ukraine case serve as an inspiration to recalibrate our positions. We should (re)learn to value the progress we have made, from a conflict-ridden European space to a peaceful environment. We should restart to see Europe as a conflict resolution system. A system that requires conference rooms, debates, European Council meetings, lots of meetings and a good level of bureaucracy, to make it work. We should start to see that young people from all our neighbouring countries wish to be part of the European space. And we should recognize the fact that they have a reason for that wish, beyond economy, beyond money and material wishes.
In other words: I can’t help but feel for those who lost their lives in Kiev because they fought to be part of the European space, while some of our own youth seem to forget the achievements and the progress we made within that space.
Europe is a peace dividend
Because let’s face it. Europe was, and still is, a peace dividend. It is, in its very essence, a conflict resolution project. A creation of a never-again-generation. If we want to hold on to those accomplishments we should not forget about them but care for what we managed to create. A peaceful environment where conflicts are dealt with in a peaceful and democratic manner. For those who doubt it: that has not always been easy. Political extremists and terrorist groups have tried to derail and destroy it. We defended it and now that young people from the neighbouring world wish to join, we should be proud and careful about it.
When I vote for the EU Parliament in May this year, the young victims of Kiev will be on my mind. Perhaps you too could take a moment out of your day today to think of those in Kiev that gave their lives because they want to join us in Europe.