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ROME, May 18 2011 (IPS) - From Scandinavia to the Mediterranean Europe is being swept by social and political changes so massive that they are calling into question its fundamental principles. Diversity, which has been a positive constant throughout our history, is now considered a threat. The signs are plain to see: a propagation of intolerance and fanaticism, growing support for populist and xenophobic parties, an ever more massive presence of immigrants without status or rights, “parallel” communities that do not interact with the rest of society, the repression of individual freedoms, and democracies in crisis.

Given this alarming panorama I accepted last July the invitation of the General Secretary of the Council of Europe, Thorborn Jagland, to join a selected Group of Eminent Persons presided over by former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer with the mandate of preparing a report on how to combine liberty and diversity -two concepts central to the European identity- in the 21st century. The result of our work, which was made public May 11, proposes an alternative to this wave of populism and tries to show a way forward for a Europe that is stronger and more sure of itself and that integrates diversity instead of rejecting it, which is futile. We have asked ourselves whether, if it is possible to be African-American or Italian-American, a European could also be an Anglo-Asian or Italian-African or Euro-Mediterranean.

We think that such a Europe could exist as long as all who live in it are accepted as citizens, regardless of religion, culture, or ethnicity. Like all other citizens in a democracy, they must play a part in the establishment of laws, while recognising that no religious or cultural logic can provide a sufficient excuse to violate them.

In the report we propose a sort of diversity manual which contains 17 guiding principles for leaders, legislators, and activists. Basically, there must be a consensus on the idea that the law applies to everyone while making sure that everyone knows what the laws say and how they can be changed. Particular measures are necessary to insure equality of opportunity to members of marginalised communities. Freedom of expression can always be defended, never limited with the excuse of placating violent or intimidating behaviour. At the same time, it is important not to underestimate the effect of public statements that feed prejudice against immigrants or minorities.

To put these principles into practice we invite the states that make up the Council of Europe to grant the rights and duties that come with citizenship -including the right to vote- to the largest possible number of inhabitants, and as an intermediate step, to grant all foreign residents the right to vote in administrative elections. An effort must also be made to correct the stereotypes of immigrants and present in public a more realistic picture of the needs of the work force, given that according to demographic forecasts projections, without immigrants the population of Europe will grow increasingly smaller and older. The European Commission calculates that in the next 50 years in the 27 EU member states, the active population will decline by about 100 million despite the constant increase of the general population during this period.

We are not calling into question the need to control the floods of immigrants but rather addressing the need to guarantee the fair and human treatment of immigrants and individuals who are granted asylum. The major scandal -and we stress this in the report- is the treatment of Europe’s largest minority, the gypsy population, estimated to be between 10 and 12 million. Unlike other minorities, the gypsies are not recent arrivals, and a vast majority are citizens of European countries. What distinguishes them from the rest of the population is their social exclusion. In level of education and income they are at the bottom of the social ladder in every country of Europe.

No other group is the target of such discrimination, and no European country can be proud of its treatment of them. They suffer the most persistent violation of what we Europeans like to call “our values”. In Italy the minister of the interior went as far as to lament the fact that there was no way of repatriating them because “here many of them have Italian citizenship, the right to stay, and there is nothing to be done about that”.

But Italy is not the only country to promote policies that are non-integrationist and even racist or xenophobic: the same kind of policy can be found in every part of Europe. This is a dangerous tendency that we have to reverse while there is still time. For this reason we are asking the Council of Europe and the European Union to work together on a common immigration policy and at the same time to reach out to our neighbours in the Near and Middle East and North Africa to offer them a real possibility to meaningfully participate in the institutions and conventions of Europe. In this way we think that Europe could become a better place. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Emma Bonino, Vice president of the Italian Senate, is a leader of the Radical Party and a member of the Group of Eminent Persons of the Council of Europe.

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