MARCH 19 — After several months of the people of western Europe appearing to take a decisive lurch towards the right wing, with nationalist policies and anti-immigration, anti-European sentiments running high, this week has seen the tide turn in the opposite direction.
First, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed her intentions to hold a second referendum to decide whether her country should end its union with the United Kingdom and establish independence.
It’s only two and a half years since a majority of Scots voted to maintain the status quo and remain British, but since then Brexit has happened — a development which most Scots voted against — and now there is fresh impetus for Scotland to break away from the UK in order to remain a member of the European Union.
Despite Sturgeon’s confidence, there are still a lot of un-knowables about Scotland’s future. Whether or when a second referendum will take place, what the result would be and what the implications of a “Scexit” vote would be are all the subject of much debate. Really, nobody knows.
There is a very real possibility, for example, that even if Scots voted to leave the United Kingdom they could still be denied membership of the EU — which they would probably have to apply for as a newly-formed nation — either by the British government or one of its allies.
Spain, for example, is determined to avoid Scotland setting a precedent for regions within its own borders which might also want to gain independence, such as the Basque Country and Catalonia, both of which already have significant support for breaking up Spain’s territory.
For that reason, the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has publicly stated that he would attempt to block Scotland from attaining membership of the EU if it became independent, illustrating that the matter is not as simple as Scots choosing between “Stay with the UK = Leave the EU” or “Leave the UK = Stay in the EU.”
But whatever happens, a second referendum would give Scots an opportunity to survey the situation south of the border in England, where narrow-minded isolationism bordering on blinkered racism has become increasingly prevalent, and say: “We do not want to be part of that.”
In the Netherlands, that message has already been sent with the results of Wednesday’s general elections, which saw current Prime Minister Mark Rutte overcome all expectations by holding off the challenge of anti-immigration candidate Geert Wilders, who had threatened to take the country out of the EU, close all mosques and ban the Koran.
Although Wilders’ Freedom Party finished second, they eventually came nowhere near winning the vote and, tellingly, only gained six seats more than the Green Party, demonstrating that a majority of the Dutch population is not yet ready to abandon their long-held reputation for cultural openness and inclusivity.
Wilders has vowed to keep on fighting for what he has termed “the patriotic spring”, but it’s most likely that his levels of support have already reached a peak. The policies he campaigned on have been at the top of the news agenda for the last two years or more, and if people were going to vote for him, they were going to do so now.
So where will Europe go next? Well, the continent’s next major political event is April and May’s presidential elections in France, where the far right National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, has been tipped to dramatically increase their share of the vote.
But recent high-profile elections have been anything but predictable, and after the unexpected triumphs of the Brexit campaign, Donald Trump and now Mark Rutte, perhaps the only sensible prediction to make about the French elections is that anything could happen.
Le Pen certainly cannot take success for granted and, having weathered such a strong battering for so long, the “European project” can perhaps now breathe a sigh of relief after a week of support — from Scotland and the Netherlands — which has been unprecedented in recent times.
Until now, the general mood around Europe — or at least the widespread perception of the general mood — has been that the EU is failing and slowly disintegrating, and that the great mass of the population is in the process of rejecting a continent-wide mentality in favour of prioritising more local concerns.
Now, though, the EU has been given backing by Dutch voters and I wonder if, in the fullness of time, we may end up regarding this week’s results in the Netherlands as a turning point, a rejection of prejudice and separation, and a return to a more generous attitude towards others.
It’s far too early to tell, but those of us — like me — who believe in open borders rather than closed minds, and an outstretched hand of friendship rather than a clenched fist of aggression, will certainly be hoping so.
Although I do not believe in the teachings of Islam, or Christianity for that matter, I do not want to live in a world where books are banned, buildings are forcibly closed and people are vilified for being “other.”
Just because I disagree with someone, that doesn’t mean I can’t bear to live alongside them in a civilised society. That, essentially, is what civilisation really means: overcoming prejudice and intolerance to peaceably accommodate different beliefs, lifestyles and attitudes. I might not be your friend, but I can still be your neighbour.
Now, for the first time in a long time, it appears that more people are starting to think that way too.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.