'What's in Europe's Basement?'
An Open Letter from Laura Sullivan, Executive Director at We Move Europe
I was listening to the radio on Monday when these words hit me really hard: "Our country is like a really old house. I love old houses, but they need a lot of work. And the work is never done [...] You may not want to go into that basement, but if you [don't], it’s at your own peril" [Listen here].
They came from Isabel Wilkerson, an American journalist who was talking about how understanding history (in this case slavery and the Great Migration) helps us make sense of the present (racism and police violence). I found myself thinking: What’s in Europe’s basement? Are we going in there?
There are different kinds of histories and basements - lots of local ones, national ones, and one big shared European basement. The main rooms within that are arguably the two big wars that started in Europe and our history of colonialism. Whereas some European countries have made efforts to confront the history of the wars, it’s harder to find examples of where our colonial past has been properly reckoned with.
One month ago, the basement doors were blown wide open in the US and beyond by the murder of George Floyd. For the first time in a long time, we are forced to confront the ugliest parts of our histories, of our stories, of our national identities. In the US, symbols of historical racism are being removed from public spaces, and the same is happening in Europe - particularly with regard to our colonial history.
Take Belgium for example: when I came here in 2001, I couldn’t quite figure out how King Leopold II, the man who organised an industry of murder and maiming of literally millions of Congolese people, was still being honoured in statues all over the country. As a direct response to the confrontation we now face with our histories, the place of these statues is being questioned, in Belgium, Italy, the UK and beyond. By venturing into the basement and confronting what exists there, we are healing our societies and being more honest with ourselves.
This statue of Leopold II in Antwerp was removed a couple of weeks ago after it was vandalised and set on fire. Other statues of Leopold II across Belgium are also being challenged and vandalised.
A lot of bravery is needed to step into that basement in the name of people, rights and healing. It’s also needed in the name of the planet. For many, it is really uncomfortable to confront how we’ve messed up our planet. It's hard to acknowledge the fact that not so long ago we adopted a system that celebrates consumption and economic growth at the cost of ever more emissions, climate change and ever greater chances of planetary collapse.
Colonialism underpins our capitalist economic model - so much of our economic system and wealth was built and financed through colonial brutality. Despite these systems ravaging our planet for decades, they have been all but dismantled in a period of weeks due to the COVID-19 crisis. That is why the green recovery is so key, to right those wrongs, and fix this old house, and come to terms with some of the rooms in the basement.
At the EU level, some politicians are asking brave questions that challenge our economic model. European Prime Ministers are in the middle of agreeing a plan about how we recover economically from COVID-19. Their Green and Just Recovery Plan for Europe is the biggest chance in generations to build a whole new economy - one that benefits people by supporting small business and job creation, accessible public transport, accessible energy-efficient homes and cuts emissions drastically.
Last week we targeted European Prime Ministers’ meeting on Zoom, while they were deciding how to finance the recovery plan. But the so-called “frugals” - Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark - spoke out against solidarity at the meeting.
Xavier Bettel, Prime Minister of Luxembourg, posted a tweet about EU Prime Ministers’ recent Zoom meeting on how to finance the recovery plan.
We are going to need to apply some friendly pressure on the frugals in the months to come. If they continue to oppose solidarity, then those hit hardest by the COVID crisis - the health workers, the ones who lost their jobs, those at risk of losing their job - will not have the means to recover from the most enormous economic shock Europe has seen in decades.
We won’t stand for Austerity 2.0 and we must make this clear just before the next EU Summit on July 17, to make sure all of our European governments agree to a big recovery fund.
Europe and the world need to open our basement doors. Owning up to the failures of the past is our best chance of healing and of survival in future. Isabel Wilkerson also said “Whatever you are ignoring is not going to go away. Whatever you’re ignoring will be there to be reckoned with until you reckon with it. And I think that that’s what we’re called upon to do where we are right now” [Listen here]. Wise words. Let’s follow them.
We Move Europe