“Let’s imagine we wake up one morning and realise that suddenly all people have the same skin colour and share the same religion. Without doubt, we would come up with a new prejudice by noon” wrote the German philosopher Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, in the 18th century.

 

The rise and electoral success of xenophobic, right-wing populist, and extreme right-wing parties all across Europe alarmingly illustrates this quote’s relevance to the current situation. That is why in April 2016, I teamed up with the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) to organise a panel discussion titled “Right-wing Populism on the Rise — Progressive Counter-strategies in Europe” at the Representation of Lower Saxony to Brussels. The aim was to analyse this current political trend and to find answers on how to jointly stop this dangerous evolution.

When we search for the development’s social causes in Europe, we encounter centuries-old mechanisms of racism and the creation of scapegoats.

Right-wing populists tend to consider themselves the defenders of national values, and warriors against an alleged multicultural domination by foreign influences. While agitation against all minorities, and “the other” in general, is their common direction, it is mainly Muslims and refugees who are currently affected. When we search for the development’s social causes in Europe, we encounter centuries-old mechanisms of racism and the creation of scapegoats. These parties and groups fuel fear and offer seemingly simple solutions to an increasingly complex world. It can’t be denied that people feel threatened by the economic development in Europe, which is accompanied by the growing gulf between rich and poor. Populists encourage the resulting fears and prejudice. We need to oppose this with determination.

We are facing two big challenges: on the one hand, we need to communicate once more the European idea as a peace-making ideal that unites people, and, on the other hand, we need to open up new perspectives to those people who feel they haven’t found their place in society. In this regard, the young require special attention. Young people need to have a better future in Europe. Above all, they need work that they can live off and better education. Precisely, this includes civic education and education in democracy, which will hence allow them to acquire knowledge of modern social values within the context of an ever-evolving world.

With the help of the new state agency, we will be able to reach and teach more young people about civic education, social values and open-mindedness, and show them opportunities for participation.

Therefore, the Government of the Land of Lower Saxony relies on concrete measures and specific educational programs. Currently, we are working on a particular state program against right-wing extremism and we are establishing a State Agency for Civic Education. This helps us strengthen active citizenship against right-wing extremism, and we are simultaneously expanding counselling and support services for victims of extreme right-wing violence. With the help of the new state agency, we will be able to reach and teach more young people about civic education, social values and open-mindedness, and show them opportunities for participation.

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Variety and diversity enrich our society rather than threaten it. We need to raise and strengthen the awareness of the fundamental value of democratic, social, and constitutional structures as the core of a liberal society, within the context of a peaceful Europe. Cross-border exchange and open-mindedness towards the culturally different are central pillars in this task for the future – be it in Lower Saxony, or throughout Europe.

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