In the first ten years after the EU decided at its 2001 Gothenburg summit to have a policy on conflict prevention, the European Commission spent €7.7 billion on what we would now call peacebuilding, about 10 per cent of its total spending on external aid. That made it the world’s biggest peacebuilding spender. But 2001 – that was a different time. The big enlargement had just happened; 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq had yet to happen; Lehman Brothers was code for success, not crash. It was a confident and strong time, a strong confident EU. It was not the EU that lines up cans labelled “Eurozone crisis” and “EU budget impasse” so it can kick them down the road. Today the air simmers with dissatisfaction and disaffection, ready perhaps to spill over into violence. So we have started to ask, is peacebuilding relevant for Europe? Austerity today, austerity tomorrow The Bank of England governor Sir Mervyn King believes we are not more than half way through the current slump. In Greece, Portugal and Spain, nobody credible is talking about a real way out, an actual end to the depression, in a time frame anybody can relate to. How will people feel after another four, five or more years of paying the price for mistakes they did not make? In today’s landscape, ordinary people’s sense of social belonging and engagement in the common good seems to be challenged as never before. It is challenged by economics as job opportunities and the belief in a better future diminish before our eyes. Politics is professionalized and in most countries is ever more distant from growing segments of the population, especially among the poor and among the young. Does this make Europe a suitable case for peacebuilding? BSOS Last year, the UK government published its Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS), containing some interesting thoughts on exactly that question:
- ‘The stability we are seeking to support … is built on the consent of the population, is resilient and flexible in the face of shocks, and can evolve over time as the context changes…
- ‘Effective local politics and strong mechanisms which weave people into the fabric of decision-making – such as civil society, the media, the unions, and business associations – also have a crucial role to play. All sections of the population need to feel they are part of the warp and weft of society, including women, young people and different ethnic and religious groups.
- ‘Jobs, economic opportunity and wealth creation are critical to stability. Lack of economic opportunity is cited by citizens as a cause of conflict, and is often the most significant reason why young people join gangs…
- ‘Without growth and employment, it is impossible to meet the basic needs of the population, and people’s aspirations for a better life for themselves and their children…’
You don’t have to think that all or most EU countries are unstable in the same way as some much poorer countries to acknowledge that many dimensions of today’s European reality give relevance to the BSOS themes. Context and questions So what would a peacebuilding approach do or look like? Where would it start? Standard procedure for working in fragile states – rule number one – is to start with context. Alert translates that to mean starting with questions and an open mind. This makes it very difficult for politicians to bring a peacebuilding approach to their own home patch. At home, they are supposed to know the answers. That’s what we have politicians for – and then we get to choose which answers we like best. Or who answers best, which is not always the same thing. On the basis of the BSOS kind of analysis, I suggest, you would look at:
- social inclusion/exclusion and marginalisation;
- at the degree of hope and confidence in the future – or their opposites;
- at political institutions – both national and local;
- at the condition of the economy and whether economic policies are creating opportunities;
- and at the space for civil society and for bodies such as business associations and trades unions to represent people, articulate concerns and influence politics.
And you would look at these issues by bringing people together to discuss problems and possible ways out. Growing youth unemployment is causing hurt and anger that a return to economic growth will not be enough to calm. In our fractured societies, bringing people together, asking questions, listening carefully for answers, and shaping common actions: never in the past 60 years has there been such a shortage of this, never has it been more needed.