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Diversity and Destiny: Is Europe Fragmenting?

Recent Trends in Ireland

On November 23rd, 2023 Dublin city experienced a night of violence, rioting, and looting. The Gardaí (Irish police) described the violence as the worst in modern Dublin history. Buses and trams were set alight, shops were ransacked, members of the Gardaí were attacked, and mobs of mostly young men ran amuck for hours. The police were caught totally unaware and it took some time to get the city centre under control once more. The rest of the country looked on in shock as the violence escalated throughout the evening and night. It seemed incredible. It was unfamiliar to us.

The riot was triggered by a knife attack on three young children and their care assistant outside a school in the inner city. Following the attack, far-right groups on social media platforms appealed to people to take to the streets and defend Irish children from criminal immigrants. These groups happily exploited this tragic situation to galvanise public anger over rising levels of immigration, widely promoting the fact that the attacker was an Algerian homeless immigrant. These groups also cited the January 2022 murder of an Irish woman – Ashling Murphy – by a Slovakian immigrant to further their anti-immigrant message. That single night of violence is believed to have caused 20 million euro of damage to city centre property. But the ramifications extend far beyond the financial impact of the riot. For many of us, it was a turning point of sorts; we wondered whether Ireland might be about to follow the trend of other European countries where populist, far-right, and anti-immigrant sentiments are gaining traction.

Since then, an anti-immigrant feeling appears to be growing in Ireland. We have witnessed many buildings, intended to house International Protection Applicants (IPAs), being set alight and vandalised. The Irish government is struggling to cope with a rise in immigrants and asylum seekers coming into the country. Adequate accommodation is in short supply. In recent weeks, many young men have started camping in tents along the canals of Dublin. They have no place to wash or cook, and lack even basic sanitation facilities. Local residents are demanding their removal, but in the midst of a national housing crisis, the government has nowhere to accommodate them. The strategy, in so far as there is one, appears to be to move them on from the more affluent areas of the city, and from areas that have a large tourist presence, to locations where services and amenities are already underfunded. Residents in these underfunded areas are rightly questioning why disadvantaged areas are becoming the “dumping ground” for immigrants, while affluent suburbs remain largely free of immigrants and IPAs.

None of this is peculiar to Ireland. A small island on the outskirts of Europe, Ireland is arguably the final destination for many IPAs. Front line countries such as Greece, Italy, Malta are at breaking point. Ireland must do its fair share, but it is interesting to witness how anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise here, and how it has accelerated in a short period of time. Inequality is exacerbating the situation globally; even in wealthier nations, large sections of the population feel “left behind” and forgotten. The arrival of immigrants and refugees has led to questions about national identity. It is unsurprising, therefore, that we are witnessing disillusionment, frustration, and fear among many sections of society, and populist groups are ready to take advantage of the social fracturing that is underway. It is likely to be a summer of discontent in Ireland as elsewhere, and with local and European elections imminent, migration is sure to be one of the most contentious issues on the political agenda. Moreover, the recent attempted assassination of the Slovak Prime Minister, Robert Fico, reflects additional tensions arising from the war in Ukraine and the manner in which some Eastern European leaders are looking East to Russia more so than West to the EU. It all suggests that Europe is facing into hard questions about its identity and future. And the June 6th European elections are likely to be contested along these lines, at least in part. We return to these matters below.

Why Populism is Popular

Why is populism gaining political ground? Inequality is proving to be one of the key drivers of populism. Globalization has left many behind, and political elites have, for the most part, underestimated the impact of inequality on democratic institutions. We find that people are turning to populist or autocratic regimes because decades of mainstream political policy has simply not worked for them. Kate Ward is one ethicist who has considered the impact of inequality on political participation, and concludes that:

Today … it is widely understood that extreme economic inequality threatens the well-being of societies and the individuals within them … For example, inequality limits political voice. It correlates with serious social problems including crime, incarceration, drug abuse, poor health, and early death, and affects all members of society, not just the poorest, on these measures. Inequality harms social mobility, which has negative psychological and social impacts for unemployed people.[1]

With this in mind, commentators like Anne Applebaum claim that autocracy represents for many “the end of the hateful notions of meritocracy, political competition, and the free market, principles that, by definition, have never benefited the less successful. A rigged and uncompetitive system sounds bad if you want to live in a society run by the talented. But if that isn’t your primary interest, what’s wrong with it?”.[2]

Autocrats and far-right groups rely on a variety of methods to advance their political agendas. Among these is what Applebaum calls the “medium sized lie”. Although not a new phenomenon, social media platforms and other new technologies have exaggerated the impact of the medium sized lie. Others like Alexander Stern believe we are now in a “post-truth moment”.[3] Jane Fountain explores some of the dangers that this poses for democracy. She explains that “Leaders in government and civil society need to build knowledge and skills for democratic problem-solving in increasingly digitalized environments. The use of digital tools has powerful potential for good, but narrow technical expertise is insufficient to foster democratic users”.[4] Can technology be used for the good of democracy, to foster politically shrewd citizens? Fountain believes that it can, but that adequate political and ethical protections need to be implemented at a time of intense technological change. Otherwise various political groups can take advantage of this technology, pushing certain algorithms and information on people so as to advance their message in a targeted way. The ease with which fake news is circulated adds to growing concerns about the way in which political outcomes are being shaped by technology and social media.

The Irish riots last November provide a good illustration of what Applebaum, Fountain and others warn about. There was some truth in what was being reported on social media – children were attacked, and the attacker was an Algerian immigrant. The medium sized lie depends on a minimal amount of truth to make it appear credible. Facts can then be manipulated, exaggerated, and embellished to serve the narrow interests of some. In addition to a degree of factual accuracy, the “medium sized lie” requires simplicity. Clarity and simplicity, coupled with repetition, reinforce a singular message. Nuance, counter-argument, or inclusion of alternative voices are to be avoided. Populist groups also appeal to nostalgia to further their agendas.[5] Those who are on the losing side of democracy, globalization, and capitalism often find themselves questioning their national and personal identity. They long for a bygone era when life was simpler and better. We are seeing that today nostalgia and political decision-making are becoming intimately linked, especially as more and more people feel adrift in a rapidly changing world, and as leaders promise a return to the “good old days”.

There are two types of nostalgia that are worth mentioning here: reflective nostalgia and restorative nostalgia.[6]Reflective nostalgia is when we study the past, perhaps even mourn it. We look back fondly on a more certain time, when we perhaps shared a common identity and purpose. However, we do not necessarily want that time back again. We are able to recognize that not everything about it was good, or that it is no longer applicable to the world of today. Restorative nostalgia, on the other hand, is not just about looking romantically at the past – it requires its “mythmakers”, those uninterested in learning from the past, or indeed examining it with a critical eye. Mythmakers care little for a nuanced reading of the past, where the failings of leaders is recognized and the shortcomings of an era acknowledged. It is not surprising, therefore, that restorative nostalgia is usually accompanied by conspiracy theories and the medium sized lies that Applebaum mentions. Restorative nostalgics are dreaming of a past that never really existed, convinced that its restoration will magically make everything better again.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Pope Francis has addressed these concerns on several occasions, most notably in Fratelli tutti. He acknowledges the tensions that exist between the local and the universal. He warns of the narrow politics of populist groups, intent on promoting a politics of hate and division rather than a politics of the common good. Francis hopes for “a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words” and calls for “a universal love that promotes all persons”,[7] one rooted in the sacred duty of hospitality. As part of this vision, he continually defends the fundamental rights of persons, rights that are universal and not dependent on borders.

There are, of course, complex legal and political issues concerning borders. The principle of sovereignty carries significant legal weight internationally, and for good reason. We recognise the right of countries to protect their borders and of states to make decisions in the national interest. But as Kristin Heyer notes, “In sharp contrast to dominant discourse, sovereignty and hospitality are understood in the tradition to be mutually implicating; legitimate sovereignty must be exercised in  reference to the universal destination of created goods and a ‘requirement to regulate borders according to basic conditions of social justice’”.[8]

Pope Francis reminds us that it is important not to rely too heavily on economic principles for moral answers. He explains that “What is needed is a politics which is far-sighted and capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach to handling the different aspects of the crisis … We cannot expect economics to do this, nor can we allow economics to take over the real power of the state”.[9] And we must embrace authentic human encounter. Through the accompaniment of others we come to know the women and men who experience displacement. Accompaniment enables us to see the distorted ways in which we have come to speak about human beings; by hearing the stories of the displaced we can help to create a counter-narrative to the destructive discourse so prevalent today. Encountering the other and learning from their lived experiences helps us to recognise the stranger as a person, made in God’s image, and to understand the global realities that drive people from their homes. As Heyer puts it: “Attentiveness to such experiences can help unmask operative narratives. Probing the complex realities behind deceptive sound bites also expands consideration beyond individuals who cross borders to consider the global contexts that compel migration”.[10]Accompaniment, therefore, and the human encounters it fosters, can be both personally and socially transformative.

The Euregio Bishops Respond

It is against this backdrop that we might consider a recent document published by a group of bishops called Euregio Bishops. European elections will take place on June 6th, and for this reason these bishops have issued a Pastoral Letter called A New Lease of Life for Europe. In it they address many of the urgent political issues facing Europe at present and appeal to Europeans not to lose sight of the values upon which modern Europe was built.

In their pastoral letter, the Euregio Bishops reflect on the diversity of European history. It has always been a continent that has enjoyed the movement of peoples and the mixing of cultures. It is not a mono-culture, but rather has been the melting pot of peoples and ideas for thousands of years. This diversity has contributed to Europe’s flourishing. But, of course, Europe has had to come to terms with the consequences of extreme nationalism as witnessed during two world wars. These painful lessons ought to serve as a reminder of where extremism can lead us. The Bishops appeal, therefore, to the principles of CST to remind us of how solidarity served as a healing principle in the post-World War II reconstruction of Europe. They say that “The project of the founding fathers of the European Union was certainly political and economic, but it was based on a humanist and spiritual spring …, that of building peace in a Europe that had drifted away from the values that constituted its roots”.[11]

The success of post-war Europe was not solely an economic success. Europe was rebuilt on values of solidarity, justice, forgiveness, and encounter. These are the foundations of the European “dream”, and the Bishops warn that we must not forget these foundations: “Our Europe must be a Europe of children, of the poor, where being a refugee is not a crime, a Europe that offers young people the beauty of culture, the richness of exchanges … and not just consumerism” (n.19). They also remind the reader that diversity is part of the European reality. Diversity is to be celebrated and not feared; diversity is part of the European destiny. Not unlike what we read in Fratelli tutti, the Euregio Bishops appreciate the tensions that can arise between local loyalties and the demands of universal responsibilities. They state:

This solidarity has given rise to an unprecedented political reality, combining the fact that each of Europe’s peoples belongs to a national community and that each nation freely adheres to a pact of solidarity between them all. This pact includes obligations imposed on voluntary partners and is founded on a foundation of shared values aimed at building a unity that transcends the diversity of each of these nations. The aim of this pact is to integrate these diversities for the benefit of an entity rich in its many resources and capable of using them for the common good of its members … (n.5).

As Europeans, we are heirs to a wealth of histories, traditions, cultures, languages, and economic and cultural resources. But the Bishops say that diversity is hard to accept in today’s world. It is often presented as something negative, a threat to what is distinctive and local. In particular, the foreigner is increasingly seen as a threat, unwelcome, and someone to be avoided. “What is paralysing European coexistence today is the fear that nations will lose control of their own destiny. A fear that leads to withdrawal and tension with others. The European crisis has a lot to do with forgetting the dynamics of the differences and exchanges that have shaped Europe throughout history”, they say (n.8).

Like democracy more generally, the European project is fragile. War has once more returned to the continent, and the migrant crisis is adding to tensions. The Bishops believe that the crisis in Europe at present has a lot with “forgetting the dynamic of encounters, journeys, cultural and commercial exchanges that have characterised the history of our continent for centuries and have shaped it” (n.8). Nor must Europe become a “club for the wealthy”, as they put it. Rather, it ought to be understood as a place where human beings, in all their fragility, vulnerability, and suffering, can find a home and contribute to a common European project built upon values of solidarity, justice, inclusion, and peace. However, the growth of narrowly nationalistic groups threatens the foundations upon which post-war Europe was built.

As we approach the European elections on June 6th, concerns about migrants dominate political discourse. People are unsure about what the future holds, and many within society are struggling to get by. Political groups must take these fears more seriously and engage with local communities. Otherwise, the narrow politics of the far-right will win out. Despite the problems we face, the Bishops believe that it is possible for all Europeans to live together and to welcome the stranger who seeks sanctuary. But it is crucial to avoid the fake promises of extremism, and  “we must resist the temptation to turn in on ourselves”, they insist. (n.16). Finally, they say that:

Europe will only succeed by being “something else”. It will distinguish itself by developing a new project for peace, by creating, in dialogue with its resources and cultural traditions, new enterprises where the sense of human community will prevail over the capture of wealth, where it will be able to help, driven by a profound sense of justice and fraternity, people from other continents to make their own wealth bear fruit, rather than being forced to migrate on frail boats in the Mediterranean. The European path must be a path of mutual aid, shared wealth, solidarity and fraternity. Its strength and promise lies in the fact that it is a project based on a shared desire for peace, founded on respect for human rights (n.23).

As we face the upcoming European elections, the Euregio Bishops ask us to discern wisely, and to vote for values that reflect the best of the European project, values of inclusivity, justice, and peace. This becomes easier if we get to know the stranger in our midst, hear their stories, and appreciate their traditions. We must, in other words, break down the stereotypes that caricature people as threat rather than gift, that see them as alien rather than brother and sister. Cultivating an instinct for encounter and openness will help us face complex difficulties together in confidence, inspired by a recognition of the riches and dynamism that are at the heart of what it means to be human.

[1] Kate Ward, “Jesuit and Feminist Hospitality: Pope Francis’ Virtue Response to Inequality”, Religions, 2017, 8, 71, p.2.

[2] Anne Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, (New York: Doubleday, 2020), p.26-27.

[3] Alexander Stern, How Not to Defend Liberalism, Commonweal, September 14th, 2023. https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/liberalism-populism-packer-fukuyama-centrism-deneen

[4] Jane Fountain, “The Algorithmic State? Challenges to Democracy in an Era of Digitalization”, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Spring 2023, no.445, p.101.

[5] Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy, p. 47ff.

[6] See Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy, chapter III.

[7] Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti, (2020), nos. 6 and 106.

[8] Kristin Heyer, “Internalized Borders: Immigration Ethics in the Age of Trump”, Theological Studies, vol. 79 (1), March 2018, 159, drawing on Anna Rowlands, “After Lesvos and Lampedusa: The European ‘Crisis’ and its Challenge to Catholic Social Thought,” Journal of Catholic Social Thought 14 (2017): 63–85 at 71– 72, https://doi.org/10.5840/jcathsoc20171416.

[9] Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti, (2020), n.177.

[10] Heyer, “Internalized Borders”, 155.

[11] Euregio Bishops, A New Lease of Life for Europe, 8th April 2024, n.6. Available at: https://www.bistum-trier.de/export/sites/portal/unser-bistum/.galleries/dokumente/Euregio_LettrePastorale2024_VersionAnglaise.pdf