Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Europe Faces a Choice: Unequivocal Solidarity or Appeasement

Europe Faces a Choice: Unequivocal Solidarity with the Victims or Appeasement with Dictators

On Monday, November 23 the European Union Commissioner Karel De Gucht just back from Cuba told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that Europe needed to place less emphasis on human rights in Cuba. Twelve days earlier former Czech President Vaclav Havel made the counter argument: "Above all, clear and unequivocal solidarity with all those confronted by totalitarian or authoritarian regimes wherever they are in the world. And economic or other particular interests should not hinder such solidarity." Below is an excerpt from his speech.

Speech of Vaclav Havel [An excerpt]

European Parliament, Brussels, November 11, 2009

Mr President,

Members of Parliament,

Thank you for your invitation and the opportunity to speak to you as we mark the twentieth anniversary of the dramatic breaking down of the closed borders, the cutting of the barbed wire, the demolishing of walls between the European nations, and, in the case of Germany, of the wall dividing two parts of the same nation. It was the end of the bipolar division not only of Europe, but, to a large measure, of the world as a whole. It was such a historically important moment that various people had the impression that henceforth calm would reign and the world would simply flourish.

That didn’t happen. History did not come to end, of course. And that makes it even more important to treat the present anniversary not only as an invitation to reflect on the present but above all as a challenge to consider the future. I will contribute to that reflection five remarks on the theme of European unification.


No one was completely prepared for such a rapid collapse of the Iron Curtain. Nor could they have been. It would have been unnatural. And so there ensued a phase of perplexity, a search for various alternatives, and uncertainty. Then NATO took the bold step of accepting new members, which had the effect of anchoring them and helped them concentrate on preparing to join the European Union. Subsequently the EU did indeed start to open its doors to the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. From time to time those countries cause it headaches of various kinds. But that is perfectly understandable. A democratic political culture cannot be created or renewed overnight. It takes a lot of time and in the meantime there are plenty of unanticipated problems to be solved. Communism ruled just once in modern times (and, hopefully, for the last time), so the phenomenon of post-Communism was also a novelty. We had to confront the consequences of the rule of fear that lasted for so many years, as well as all the dangers related to a redistribution of property without precedent in history. So there were and are lots of obstacles and we are only now acquiring experience of such a state of affairs.

I believe, nonetheless, that the West went about things in the right way. Any other approach would have given rise to even more anxieties for it and it would also have been more costly. Not only could it have seriously triggered a new struggle over spheres of influence, or the actual domination of one group by another, but the states that remained outside the western gates would most likely have turned into a stamping ground for various nationalists and populists, along with their armed militias, and also possibly a place of dangerous local conflicts, which would be all the more dangerous in that, for well-known reasons, no real peace conference took place after World War II to decide on a binding, precise and lasting post-war settlement in Europe. I think that many of those who until recently wielded a flag with a hammer and sickle would be capable, without much ado, of reaching for a national flag instead. We were able to see where that path could lead in the former Yugoslavia. But demons, as is well known, always awaken other demons. So no one can tell whether that contagion would not soon infect the western half of Europe. And we live in a period of history, when, as a result of globalization, any local conflict could easily develop into a world war.

So the approach adopted was the most natural in historical terms, and the most advantageous in practical terms. Moreover, it was an approach that could also be interpreted as an expression of thoughtful shared responsibility for the way things had evolved in the recent past, which were partly due, in their origins, to short-sighted concessions on the part of the democratic world. To sum up then: however bothersome we might have been to the European Union up to the present, it is worth putting up with it, because any alternative to the course of events to date would most likely have been much worse and more dangerous. In the circumstances, all one can ask of Europe is patience and understanding.

However, the question is what can we offer Europe? It has long been my opinion that after what we underwent at the time of the totalitarian system, we ought – or we are duty-bound even – to explain to others in a convincing manner what we went through, and make specific suggestions based on its various implications. It is not an easy task and I am not sure we’ve made a good job of it to date. The point is that totalitarian or authoritarian forms of government tend to have very inconspicuous beginnings and employ very ingenious means of controlling society. Only now, in hindsight, do many of us realize how deviously they were entangled in the totalitarian web. That all obliges us to be particularly circumspect. It should be the way we can help guarantee that what we endured will never be repeated.

What does it require?

Above all, clear and unequivocal solidarity with all those confronted by totalitarian or authoritarian regimes wherever they are in the world. And economic or other particular interests should not hinder such solidarity. Even a minor, discreet and well-intentioned compromise can have fatal consequences– even if only in the long term, or indirectly. One must not retreat in the face of evil, because it is in the nature of evil to take advantage of every concession. Besides, Europe has already had its own unfortunate experience of appeasement policies. Our support can help open-minded people or outspoken witnesses to the situation in North Korea, Burma, Iran, Tibet, Belarus, Cuba or anywhere else, much more than we think. But it will help us too. It will help us build a better world and also to be more true to ourselves; in other words, to put into practice the values that we proclaim in general terms.

Recently the European Parliament awarded the Sakharov Prize to Memorial, the Russian association that monitors how human rights are respected in Russia. I think that was an important act. I recall how important it once was in my country when the French President invited us – the opposition – to a working breakfast during his state visit – against the wishes of the state leadership. These are only seemingly superficial matters. That is how things operate in totalitarian regimes: a single breakfast or a single suppressed student demonstration can – in certain circumstances – set history moving.

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