zondag 30 januari 2022

Alwins speech

 BYP 2022

Dear Barlaeans, delegates, officials, members of the board, Margriet and Reinier,

I would like to express my profound gratitude for the invitation to open the Barlaeus Youth Parliament 2022. Today your general assembly will debate about a number of resolutions in which you address the cultural integration of people with a migratory background, the usage of nuclear power and plastic waste polluting the ocean to mention just a few of the wide range of topics which you will be discussing. I thought it might be fitting to open this edition of the BYP by taking you from Athens to Brussels, from the cradle of democracy to the office buildings of the European Union.

But let me start on a more personal note. When I was 21, I wrote a column entitled “A green Leviathan” in the student magazine of which I was editor at the time. The title of the piece referred to the famous book by the great English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in which he defended the absolute monarchy of his days. I used his theory to defend the institution of an international organisation with absolute powers to implement the necessary measures to prevent environmental disaster. It was 1990, I was young and the piece was written in black and white. In the next issue of the magazine, I was rightly castigated by a fellow student and a researcher, the one arguing that my reasoning was deeply flawed and inconsistent, the other that I should at least allow citizens the right to collectively choose their own extinction. I had to think about this youthful indiscretion when I was preparing for today: not so much because of the topic under discussion, but because it illustrates a very understandable – all too human - desire for simple solutions. For me, it was a quick fix for our environment, written in black and white. But democracy at its best is grey. Let me explain.

Thé founding statement on political democracy is probably the funeral speech that the Greek statesman Pericles held when he mourned the soldiers who had died in the war of Athens against the Spartans. In the funeral speech, he famously describes what made Athens a democracy:

“Our form of government” he said, “is called a democracy because its administration is in the hands, not of a few, but of the whole people. (…) Election to public office is made on the basis of ability, not on the basis of membership to a particular class.” But, democracy for Pericles was not only a form of government, it was also – and more importantly - a way of life. “[N]ot only in our public life are we free and open” said Pericles, “but a sense of freedom also regulates our day-to-day life with each other. We do not flare up in anger at our neighbour if he does what he likes. And we do not show the kind of silent disapproval that causes pain in others, even though it is not a direct accusation. In our private affairs, then, we are tolerant and avoid giving offense.”

The most disturbing feature of recent political debate for me is the fact that it is exactly this way of life that is under fire. There has of course always been debate about the future of the European Union. And at the core of its very existence is a constant and perpetual tug of war between federalists who want a more unified Europe with a political, social and military agenda of its own and nationalists who want to keep Europe as small as possible and who strive to restrict its operations to the economic realm. That debate was always part and parcel of the European tradition as it evolved from the 1950s onwards.

After Brexit, the increasing divide between East and West is a new and major challenge for the EU. There is a growing number of conflicts about the core values of the EU and the most fundamental principles of our modern democracy. Conflicts that are raised not by some totalitarian or authoritarian state somewhere on the other side of the globe but by member states of the EU. Membership is no longer the self-evident background against which countries and political parties deliberate about Europe. The conviction that a unified Europe was important, maybe even necessary for peace and prosperity no longer stands as an undisputed truth. The debate about the future of Europe is no longer about its direction – federalist or nationalist - but has become one about its very existence.

Political parties are increasingly extreme in their opinions. Black-and-white is no longer the language of youthful indiscretion, but has more and more become the new political standard. The European Union is one of the most conspicuous victims of this development. The EU has often been seen by its critics as the embodiment of the failure of our democracy. It is by them regarded as the pinnacle of bureaucracy, symbolised best maybe by the large glass office buildings in which the European Union resides in Brussels. But most of all – the European Union is grey: there are no easy solutions in Brussels, a depressing number of rules and regulations and even more civil servants.

I would think that grey needs a revaluation. Not grey as in mediocrity, but grey as a sign of humanity, grey as in “one question means more, than ten opinions”. I am convinced that an open and inclusive society in which grey trumps black-and-white remains the best defence against bigotry and fanaticism. I would like to invite you to take a stance against black-and-white thinking and to promote grey. Now, you might think: you were 21 and black-and-white, why would we be grey at our age? First, at your age there’s nothing really wrong with black-and–white. But, I have high hopes for you. The researcher who responded in grey to my black-and-white column was an old Barlaean and has since become professor of history. It might just be that a Barlaean education inoculates against black-and-white thinking. For today I invite and challenge you to be grey. Thank you and enjoy! 

(we'll miss you Alwin :))

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