Europe: Where’s the spirit of liberty now?

EU elites are using the cover of recent terror attacks to take away our freedoms.

Bruno Waterfield

Topics Politics

The idea of freedom has captivated the European imagination for centuries. New York’s Statue of Liberty, which became a world symbol for the search for a better life, was presented to America by the French. The engineer was Gustave Eiffel, creator of the Paris tower landmark, and his statue was entitled ‘Liberty enlightening the world’. The statue embodied the high regard in which the idea of freedom was then held. As the US National Park Service approvingly notes, it ‘is one of the most universal symbols of political freedom and democracy’.

With her torch symbolising the Enlightenment, ideas with a European genesis, the Statue of Liberty also embodied a ringing appeal to all peoples of the world. The poem ‘New Colossus’, by Emma Lazarus, written to raise cash for the project and then mounted on the statue’s pedestal, has become a famous pledge: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….’

Europe and the USA once held out this vision of a better life – part of the deal in societies where progress was measured not merely by materialism but also in the aspiration, and struggle, for freedom. This vision has rarely lived up to its promise, but it has inspired billions of human beings across the world to carve out real liberties and freedoms that continue to benefit us today.

After the London bombs, many called for us to defend our freedoms against the terrorists. But our liberties face enemies other than the nihilist misfits behind the suicide attacks on London’s Underground and buses. Within hours of the attacks, EU interior ministers and justice officials were circling like vultures, seeking to feed off another terror tragedy in a European capital.

Initially, Charles Clarke, British home secretary and current chair of meetings of EU justice ministers, played down a rush to draconian UK anti-terror legislation. His restraint was praised in a 10 July Observer leader: ‘A free country has soft targets. What would our society become with the kind of policing that could protect them all? If we want free association in public spaces, we risk those spaces being targeted by terrorists…. Clarke was wise to acknowledge that at once.’ But Clarke was showing no such restraint on Europe’s stage. Clarke, along with European Commission vice-president Franco Frattini, French and Italian interior ministers, Nicolas Sarkozy and Roberto Castelli, was launching a big push to emphasise Europe’s vulnerability to attack.

Within days of the bombings, and in stark contrast to the strength of spirit shown by ordinary Londoners, the EU’s culture of fear was the order of the day. This has happened before. In the aftermath of the Madrid bombing in March 2004, European civil liberties also came under fire. On 13 July 2005, agreement among Europe’s governments for draconian, and previously disputed, measures allowing electronic surveillance of mobile phones and the internet, was rushed through at an emergency meeting. Consensus was achieved even before the European Commission had drafted a legally watertight proposal – the measures are now generating overtime for EU lawyers, trying to bend data protection and internal market legislation into shape. The measures have been opposed by industry – and before the London bombings, they had faced a tough time in the European Parliament.

Going against his earlier statements, Clarke told MEPs that the highest freedom, in a new ‘hierarchy of rights’, was the right not to be killed. ‘Just let us put in place our hierarchy of rights. The right to live. The right to go to work on the underground. The right to have an ID card. The right not to have data abused.’ In Clarke’s new order liberty is conspicuous by its absence. The Observer’s question ‘what would our society become?’ is perhaps better posed as ‘what has our society become?’. For the EU elites, the culture of fear is the operating principle that overrides hard-earned freedoms. In joking asides with MEPs as he prepared to railroad through electronic surveillance measures, Clarke mocked the French Revolution’s rights legacy of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ as artefacts of conservative old Europe and, like the Common Agriculture Policy, the preserve of has-beens like French President Jacques Chirac. ‘It is not 1789 today’, Clarke told the European Parliament’s justice committee.

For many EU officials, the terror attacks are seen as a way of scaring Europe’s citizens into rallying around the European constitution. Franco Frattini sees a golden opportunity amid the wreckage to revive the EU project. ‘Security is, in the commission’s view, the appropriate response to build the new consensus for Europe’, he said on 13 July. Clarke speculated that French and Dutch referendum rejections of the EU constitution were due to popular desires for immigration and anti-terror crackdowns. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso emphasised the potential posed by terrorism for those building the EU. ‘More than ever this is the moment to overcome reticence against closer cooperation. This is what our citizens expect from us. The fight against terrorism is at the top of issues where citizens wish a stronger European dimension.’

But ambitions by the EU elites to capitalise from terrorism are largely wishful thinking. In the aftermath of bomb attacks on Madrid on 11 March 2004, the commission’s own spring polling showed terrorism ranked fifth as an important issue, among only 15 per cent of Europeans. In Spring 2005, terrorism had become even more of a minority concern, affecting only 10 per cent, dwarfed by the 50 per cent worried by unemployment. As the response of Londoners on 7 July showed, Europeans will stand up to the terrorists when bombs attempt to make us fearful on the streets of our great cities. It is now time to take a stand too against EU moves to make us less free in the name of fear.

Over the past few days, open EU border rules for France were suspended, and radical Muslim clerics are to be kicked out of the country and stripped of passports. Bavarian interior minister Gunther Beckstein has suggested that cameras should be installed in German mosques to enable government agents to monitor and censor inflammatory remarks by Islamic leaders. In Italy, the government has launched an airport crackdown and stepped up the routine harassment of immigrants. Mandatory fingerprinting – formerly a fascist hangover confined to Barroso’s native Portugal – is to become a feature of biometric passports and ID cards for all EU citizens, facilitating surveillance of travel in Europe airports, sea ports and railway stations. Once, confident in the ideas of the Enlightenment, Europe and America saw freedom as both the promise and the defence of civilisation. This is not so today.

The vicious but relatively feeble forces of terrorism will not bring down European civilisation. Only Europeans can do that by giving in to the EU’s elites and giving up on ideas of freedom. Waving the white flag and surrendering our liberties to our rulers amounts to defeatism. That many in Brussels find terrorism a wellspring for new consensus on EU values should be a powerful warning for the future.

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Topics Politics


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