Address by Chairman of the European Council for Tolerance and Reconciliation Aleksander Kwaśniewski at the symposium titled Building Together the Future of Europe. Brussels, European Parliament

Aleksander Kwasniewski

Tolerance in the EU

Dear Vice President Barrot,

Dear President Kantor,

Ladies and Gentleman,

Let me welcome you at this seminar organized by the European Jewish Congress and with support of the Czech Presidency and the European Parliament. I am very glad that in this very practical way we are continuing the good cooperation with the European Parliament, which co-hosted here in Brussels the European Day of Tolerance, November last year. We have marked the 70th Anniversary of Kristallnacht, but also briefly addressed the state of Tolerance in Europe. This seminar is aimed at elaborating this issue in more detail and depth.

I think that there is hardly a better place to speak about Tolerance than the European Parliament. It is the most representative institution within the EU’s institutional triangle, embodying the free will and democratic choice of the citizens of our Union. Moreover, its political role is increasing and will be even stronger in the years to come. Therefore it should be appreciated that this Parliament openly addresses important political issues, be it the situation in Belarus, energy security, or the state of Tolerance, as today. This is also the reason why we met here last November and are meeting here today. I thank very much the European Parliament, its President Pottering, the Czech Presidency and European Commission for supporting and partaking in this seminar.

Dear friends,

I am here today first and foremost as Chairman of the European Council of Tolerance and Reconciliation. It is a new international initiative, which officially started its activities November last year here in Brussels during the European Day of Tolerance. The purpose of the ECTR is to provide a forum for discussion, reflection and forward thinking on matters of European human rights policy in general, and promotion of tolerance in particular.

But, Ladies and Gentleman, why is that particular Tolerance that me and the ECTR recognize today as one of the most important features of a united Europe? As it turns out, the beginning of the 21st century, turbulent, troubled and full of threats, often brings to mind the memory of situations and problems that we have already coped with in the past. We were not always able to draw the right conclusions.

And today Europe is becoming increasingly diverse and multicultural. This multi-ethnicity becomes a growing challenge for the European Union Western. Europe already now matches North America in its significance as a region of immigration. Average net immigration in Europe in the last decade stood at 3 per 1,000 inhabitants annually, compared to 3.1 in the United States. The region now hosts a population of more than 60 million migrants, compared to 41 million in North America. There is every indication that Europe’s importance as a region of destination will increase, as European countries recruit migrants to fill the labour and skills shortages that are predicted to rise in the coming decades.

Yet European governments and their electorates display a profound ambivalence about immigration. Almost all cases of labour migration, irregular migration, asylum and integration have become highly politically contested. Populist mobilization on immigration themes has placed even liberal oriented governments under pressure to pursue restrictive approaches.

Incoming migration means that many countries are becoming increasingly multi-ethnic. It generates new pressures and incentives to incorporate ethnic minority interests. Again, this tendency can conflict with more populist calls for assimilation. Citizenship tests are currently in fashion in Europe, with Germany, the Netherlands and Britain all revising the process by which immigrants are admitted or made nationals. It remains uncertain how governments will resolve these tensions, at national and regional level. A number of divergent scenarios are possible, notably an increasing differentiation between the ‘wanted’, economically beneficial migrants who enter through regular programmes, and ‘unwanted’ irregular migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.

Another issue that we should address at this conference is education. In democratic societies, an important socialization goal is to teach youth tolerant reactions to dissenting others. The abilities to think critically and to consider the practical and moral consequences of actions are relevant factors for the development of tolerance. But many young people today in Europe do not know simple facts from their history, do not draw any conclusions from past, tragic experiences.

It was member of our Council, Göran Persson, then Swedish Prime Minister, who observed that phenomena in Sweden – one of the most developed societies in Europe! In 1997 a Swedish survey found that a significant percentage of young people in Sweden were not convinced that the Holocaust had actually happened. A debate in the alarmed Swedish parliament resulted in a political consensus on the need to initiate an information campaign on the history of the Holocaust and the processes that led up to it. The Living History Forum was established as a Swedish public authority with the aim of increasing understanding of contemporary events in the light of the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity. The main goal of this program is to promote tolerance, democracy and human rights. That example was followed then by many of Europe’s governments. Therefore we have to underline, that education and coordinated efforts in this regards are needed to address the challenge of fading memory. But as we know, education has not been a part of the integration project. But maybe we have come to the point when it should be.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentleman,

Tolerance has a lot to do with memory and education. It has a lot in common with experience, too. But the experience of sufferings in the past was not sufficient to prevent the suffering from continuing. Also here in Europe, in the Balkans. Yet our history over the centuries obliges us to promote tolerance throughout Europe and across the globe and to help everyone practise it. We must not forget the fact that tolerance is constantly being put to the test. I therefore state quite clearly that Europe must never show the least understanding for intolerance, xenophobia, or anti-Semitism, for violence in the name of religion. Europe cannot tolerate intolerance. In often cited words of Thomas Mann, “Tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil.” Tolerance without acceptance of intolerance is what makes us humans.

And this brings me to yet another reflection. I have just recently signed together with other personalities from Poland (including Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Marek Edelman – last living commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Andrzej Wajda and others) an open letter to the Polish government, calling to stay away from the World Conference Against Racism in Geneva (so-called “Durban II”), if the conference were to turn out again into the forum of political and racial manifestations. As you know, the draft version of the final document for this UN conference has been prepared by the Working Group chaired by Libya and included such states as Iran, Pakistan and Cuba.

The document ignored the earlier EU statements that expressed its concern of possible bias and politicization of this United Nations’ conference. The increase in racism and intolerance was mentioned only in the context of democracies and liberal societies, but intolerance on the grounds of sexual orientation is not referred to at all. The draft documents describe anti-terrorism measures as having influenced racism and intolerance, there is however no reference to radical religious circles calling for carrying terrorist activities. For now, thanks to a strong EU position, the drafts were changed, but many experts still say that they are insufficient. The EU member states have therefore the right and obligation to decide whether to attend the conference or not; the presence of the EU Member states cannot be used for the legitimization of selective criticism of racist tendencies or political bias regarding Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These are not the purposes of the United Nations and the European Union.

Ladies and Gentleman,

In a few days, in Strasburg, the city that hosts one of the seats of the European Parliaments, we will celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty. A Treaty that reflected the tragic experiences of World War II and was set to prevent a new disaster on the European Continent. The motto of NATO says that “Vigilance is the price of freedom”. But as Europe changes, vigilance has to be adopted not only to military threats, but first and foremost to threats to the very foundations of our societies – tolerance, peaceful coexistence, respect to each other. So let us stay vigilant!

Thank you for your attention.