EUROPE must present a united front against intolerance, says a distinguished group of elder statesmen, Nobel Peace Prize laureates and others, at the launch of the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation (ECTR) in Paris on Tuesday.
The Council will work to combat ethnic, religious, and cultural discrimination. It is chaired by Aleksander Kwasniewski, former President of Poland and a leading figure in European politics, who is credited with having contributed significantly to the reconciliation between the Polish, German, Ukrainian, and Jewish people. Vaclav Havel, former President of the Czech Republic, is also a founding member.
The launch of ECTR comes against a background of increased anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism in Europe. Middle-class voters in Austria last month punished a coalition mainstream government perceived to be ignoring immigration concerns, by voting in large numbers for two of the far-right parties: the Freedom Party, which ran a xenophobic and anti-Islamic campaign, and the Alliance for the Future of Austria.
The Freedom Party is led by a man with past associations with neo-Nazism, Heinz-Christian Strache. It took 18 per cent of the vote, leading to fears that the country would once again be associated with Nazism. Concern is also rising in Germany, which has seen the desecration in recent months of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.
Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress and World Holocaust Forum, and another founding member of the ECTR, has urged the EU to back up its condemnation of such attacks with strict actions and governmental policies. “The lessons of the Holocaust are universal ones which serve to remind all humankind of the dangers inherent with hatred, intolerance and ignorance,” he said.
Existing bodies such as the European Union Monitoring for Racism and Xenophobia Commission and the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance have been examining the issues; and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has devoted particular attention to anti-Semitism in recent years. The Berlin Declaration in 2004 universally condemned all forms of intolerance, incitement, and harassment, and pledged to combat hate crimes.
The ECTR is to prepare a range of initiatives to promote tolerance and mutual respect across Europe, including the institution of a European Day of Tolerance. On 10 November, it will present a number of these initiatives to the European Parliament in Brussels.
The situation in Europe is acknowledged to be more serious than in the UK, which is judged to have the means to monitor and assess the scale of the problem and the political will to do so.
But there was enough concern for an All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Anti-Semitism to be held last year. “Given the links between the BNP and similar anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and xenophobic political parties in Europe, we recommend that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office reports on far-right activity as part of its published reporting to Parliament,” was one government response.
The Church and Society Commission and others, including the Conference of Churches in Europe, held a series of seminars devoted to Islam, Christianity, and Europe at the European Parliament in July. They suggested that Islam was perceived as a threat in Europe not only for terrorism but because it seemed foreign-dominated, and gave the reminder: “Muslims in Europe are no longer temporary migrants, but European citizens.”