Speech by Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni,
Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe
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Europe has been going through the longest period of economic distress for many years. Millions of people have seen their living standards decline, and millions have had to make tangible sacrifices. However, the impact of the crisis is not only about the welfare of the people. Most unfortunately, it has already affected the mind-sets of people and is provoking the rise of destructive emotions.
In many countries we have witnessed the re-emergence of xenophobia, racism and political extremism. The social anger and frustration are targeted at the state, the rich or the privileged. But the real victims are the most vulnerable social groups. The more different they are from the mainstream of society - the more easily they are targeted as the epitome of evil. Migrants and Roma are the most victimised groups, but they are not the only ones suffering from the rise of intolerance. Muslims have become the most discriminated against religious group today in Europe. The new upsurge in anti-Semitism reflects the particularly worrisome aspects of hatred and the most embarrassing for Europe bearing in mind its history. Ethnic tensions are growing.
It is no wonder that anti-migration rhetoric sells well at the ballot boxes. In several countries leading politicians proclaimed that curbing migration was their goal. Several politicians declared the end of multiculturalism. Such declarations reflect the sense of resignation and hopelessness. Because every reasonable politician knows that Europe cannot sustain its welfare and competiveness without migration. Diversity has been at the origin of Europe's prosperity for millennia. And it is with us to stay. Europe will not be able to serve as the beacon of a better future and the guardian of human rights and fundamental civilizational values without learning how to better manage its diversity.
Managing diversity democratically is now Europe's main strategic challenge as outlined in the White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue launched by the Committee of Ministers in 2008, and later on suggested by the Group of Eminent Persons that in May 2011 produced the report ‘Living Together: Combining Diversity and Freedom in 21st-century Europe'. The main message of this report is now even more valid than ever. Europe must defend and foster its model of tolerance, understanding and inclusiveness. It must uphold its belief in the rule of law and respect for freedoms. But the messages of the report must be taken further. I am grateful to our Albanian hosts for their initiative to convene the present conference. Its focus reflects the most topical dimensions of developing the long-term responses to the challenges of managing diversity – education and the youth.
The saying goes: "If you prepare yourself for next year, plant your field with wheat. If you plan for the next decade, furnish your land with trees. But, if you forecast the next hundred years, build a school."
The quality of education will be decisive to Europe's competitiveness. It is important that the intellectual and professional side of the educational system is complemented by a strong civic component. We need schools which would help the young generations not only to know the world, but also to understand it. Therefore the emphasis of the Council of Europe is on civic education. School textbooks are for many the main, if not the only, books they really read and study in their whole lives.
They must help to understand the otherness. Intolerance is based on ignorance. Intolerance is also based on an emotional handicap – the lack of empathy. If both gaps are not filled at school – it is becoming too late to catch up. The present educational model is at a crossroads due to the pressures of the modern technological age. We must re-invent the educational paradigm with due attention to its civic component.
Today's youth is experiencing particular hardships. In many countries they are heavily hit by unemployment. This can leave a deep scar - cynicism, hypocrisy and the loss of hope in values. There are no magic solutions to creating good prospects for success in life. But it is our duty to remove barriers which kill hope. Nothing is more demoralising than corruption and nepotism. We must make fighting corruption and nepotism a priority. Not only because it weakens democracy, undermines the rule of law and limits access to human rights. But also because corruption and nepotism kill the noble and sincere aspirations of the young generations.
The youth is a natural agent of understanding. They are keen to explore new cultures and new territories. We owe them encouragement and support. We should put particular emphasis on studying foreign languages and youth exchange programmes. I am in favour of a wide European programme of teaching foreign languages as a joint EU-CoE endeavour. I am also in favour of not only maintaining but expanding mobility schemes, not only for students like the very successful Erasmus Programme. The Erasmus Programme is the most effective of all bridges – builder across European cultures. It is more about interculturalism than about study curriculum.
Europe will not survive as a fortress. It must be open to the world. And this starts with the neighbourhood. The Arab Revolutions and the democratic transformations, from a European perspective, are a geopolitical opportunity of historic magnitude. Europe should be responsive to the needs of the region. Being European is about mind-set and values not about artificial boundaries. The Council of Europe is active in providing technical assistance to the region. But the potential is bigger. We can tap it by developing a new institutional status for our neighbours and engaging in political dialogue.
The neighbours can make the intercultural contacts even more meaningful for the Council of Europe.
I intend to put forward new proposals for the fight against xenophobia, intolerance and discrimination. The follow-up to the ‘Living Together' initiative should be intensified. This Conference will undoubtedly be helpful in this process. Sometimes the value of such conferences is questioned. Statements are repetitive, arguments - self-evident, messages – trivial. But they have a deeper value. They help to build coalitions. To fight xenophobia and intolerance we need a strong, transversal and diversified European coalition. So far our response to diversity and migration has been predominantly local and national. I believe we should be moving towards a concerted European response, and I am fully convinced that the Council of Europe should take the lead in this endeavour. I trust that the Tirana Conference will bring us closer to that goal.