Reasons to be Cheerful? What 2016 taught us about the battle ahead

Eddy Adams

By Eddy Adams, on December 14th, 2016

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For many of us, the collapse of Communism in Europe was the most significant historical moment in our lifetime. The crumbling of the Eastern Bloc and the subsequent implosion of the USSR led to the reunification of Europe. At the time, it seemed like the catalyst towards the inevitable spread of liberal democracy throughout the continent. The historian, Francis Fukuyama seemed to capture the mood when he spoke of ‘The End of History.

Europe’s cities were at the heart of this transformation, amongst them Budapest in 1956, Prague in 1968 and Gdansk in 1980. Each of them, historic pawns in Europe’s strategic power struggle, showed that the flicker of resistance remained alive in even the darkest times. And, of course Berlin. No other city embodies our continent’s unity and long journey to shared democracy than the, now, German capital. The sudden dramatic collapse of the Berlin Wall, electrified the world. A psycho-political breakthrough to an exciting new place.

How different things look now as we survey the landscape from the smouldering remains of 2016. Our vision of a unified Europe is under existential threat. The European Union, under whose aegis the democratic and economic rehabilitation of Eastern Europe were supported, faces an unprecedented challenge. Across the continent, nations hunker down and start looking inwards, as they do so looking for scapegoats within their midst. An ugly populism is stirring, encouraged by BREXIT in the West and the rebuilding of walls in the East.

In such times, we must look for encouragement. But where?

In any struggle it helps to know what you are fighting against, as well as understanding what you are fighting for. After this year, what we are fighting against is much clearer. Wrapped in the language of ‘taking back control’ it is, in fact, about retaining power for certain sections of society. Part of this is about undoing progressive legislation designed to tackle structural inequalities, in a Europe for example where on average women continue to earn 16.3% less than their male counterparts and where third country nationals are almost doubly at risk of poverty and social exclusion. And that’s even before we start talking about climate change. The EU has been a key driver on each of these agendas, and should continue to be in future. So the terms of the encounter are squarely set out: Progress v Regress.

time cover person of the yearAt times like this, it is instructive to look in the mirror. For those in the progress camp, that means facing up to mistakes made in the past. If nothing else, the seismic impact of BREXIT and Trump has forced policy makers to stop and listen. Frankly, the arrogance of the policy community towards, for example, the impact of globalisation helped get us where we are now. It is no longer possible to pretend that the opening of the world – driven by free-trade, porous borders and turbo-charged by technology – has benefitted all. That mantra has had its day.

In a recent think piece, Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of NESTA, noted that after two generations of unprecedented progress we are approaching turbulence. The benefits of those years – political, economic and social – were real. But growing numbers of Europeans doubt if their children’s lives will be better than theirs. The promise of shared prosperity – the basis of our political and economic model – appears increasingly hollow. Post- fact politicians are quick to exploit these uncertainties.

Now is the time for big ideas. Mulgan’s call is for Europe to think dialectically. In practice, that’s means abandoning the unalloyed message about the benefits of globalisation and technological development. Instead, we should continue to invest in enterprise, innovation and education, but do so with acknowledgment of the arising risks and challenges. For example, reshape education to fit the future, whilst creating new levels of security in welfare and employment. He concludes:

“None of this is easy. But this is the serious work that must start if we are to prosper in the future. It requires Europe to think dialectically, achieving a balance between conflicting ideas, rather than taking them to their logical conclusions (the consistent mistake of the more extreme partisans of globalisation.)”

As we face this challenge, it’s important to remember that we’re not looking at a blank screen. There is already a great deal to build upon. Across Europe’s cities there are also many sources of inspiration.

European Cities are sources of inspiration

ada-colau-2Amongst them are Mayors leading cities in different ways. Anne Hidalgo in Paris has led the charge on tackling her city’s congestion and poor air quality. In Barcelona, Ada Colau is taking important steps to support affordable housing in one of Europe’s most popular cities. In London, Sadiq Khan has also identified this as one of the city’s key challenges. Across the North Sea, in Rotterdam Ahmed Aboutaleb is championing the Next Economy, ensuring that it will tackle fuel poverty and create jobs at all levels, as well as driving innovation.

For me, these city leaders are modelling good leadership behaviours. They are also listening to and addressing the priorities identified by their citizens. Their emphasis is on ensuring that our cities remain environmentally, economically and socially self-sufficient. In a word; resilient.

And it’s not only the biggest cities that are looking to square the circle between economic growth, environmental protection and citizen welfare. Across the URBACT Programme, there are hundreds of small and medium-sized cities developing solutions to the wicked problems that surround us.

But leadership in cities comes from many sources. Earlier this year I was in Derry, Northern Ireland. Another walled city, it has a long history of conflict and division, punctuated by the 1972 Bloody Sunday events. There, I met an inspirational group of young people from both communities (Catholic and Protestant) volunteering to support others through the work of Tell It In Colour. One young man recounted how he overcame his fear – of real physical danger – to speak on the radio about their work and its importance. His core message was that ‘we are one and the same’ regardless of creed, colour or country.

The struggle for Europe’s future is not over yet

kwame anthony appiahAs the year ends, I have been enjoying the excellent BBC Reith Lectures series, which annually invites an eminent thinker to speak on a chosen theme. Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Law and Philosophy at New York University delivered the 2016 series. His theme has been Identity, broken into the four strands of Creed, Country, Colour and Culture. As a gay man of mixed Ghanaian and British heritage, living and working in New York, he is well-placed to explore the concept.

His lecture on Country was delivered in Glasgow, a city I still call home, where much discussion remains under way on the identity question. In it, Professor Appiah relates the tale of the writer Aron Ettore Schmitz who was born in 1861 in the city of Trieste, at that time, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was not until his mid-life that it became the Italian city which it remains today.

SvevoSchmitz himself had a typically hybrid identity, described as:

“ Jewish by upbringing, an atheist who became a Catholic as a courtesy to his wife; someone who had claims to being German and to being Italian, and who never felt other than Triestine, whatever that meant exactly.”

Schmitz was quite at home in this hybrid city where most people spoke either German or Triestino, the local Italian dialect, or Slovenian in the surrounding rural areas. When (with the support of James Joyce) he became a published author, he adopted the nom-de-plume Italo Svevo (“Italian Swabian”) as a nod to his dual heritage.

Some years later, when the clouds of Fascism were gathering, new nationals were pressurised to adopt Italian surnames. Schmitz offered to legally use his writer’s name but this was not permitted, as the rule was to translate your original name. Schmitz refused, explaining that he already had two names and didn’t need a third. He passed away soon after, so did not have to witness his Catholic wife being forced to register as a Jew or his grandsons being killed as partisans and in camps. We all know how this story ends.

Or do we? The struggle for Europe’s future is not over yet. Those of us who champion the principles of tolerance, diversity and fairness should not despair. Our cities – large and small – can still reflect these values, but they must be fought for. We can no longer take them for granted. This, if anything, is the lesson of 2016.


Photos: wikicommons, Time cover: (Time / Handout / EPA)

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