In front of the European Parliament stands the Simone Veil Agora, a public space named after a true giant of European politics. Holocaust survivor, former president of the European Parliament and an utterly fearless champion of women’s rights – her passing a fortnight ago leaves Europe much poorer.
First published in The National, 12 July 2017
Born in Nice to a Jewish family, she was arrested in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz with her mother and sister. Another sister was sent to Ravensbrück. The sisters survived. Their mother, Yvonne, died one month before the camp was liberated. Simone’s father and brother were last seen on a train deporting them to Lithuania.
This is why the EU came into being. It locks governments in a perpetual cycle of negotiation and diplomacy, because when governments stop talking, they start preparing for war.
Simone Veil believed in Europe. After Auschwitz, she trained as a lawyer and rose to become the first female president of the European Parliament. When world leaders and Holocaust survivors gathered in 2005, Veil was among them, the 78651 tattooed on her arm and hidden under long sleeves. Addressing the ceremony, Veil affirmed: “It’s here, where absolute evil was perpetrated, that the will must resurface for a fraternal world, a world based on respect of man and his dignity”.
The EU is more than an economic union; it is a union of people who learned from history and meant it when they said “never again”.
Recent years have seen a sobering upsurge in hateful attitudes. Homophobic attacks in the UK increased by 147 per cent in the three months after the Brexit vote. People can see images of a toddler washed up on the beach and still quibble over taking in refugees.
Instead of standing up for the rights of the desperate and vulnerable, too many politicians are instead pandering to the hard right with one eye on the next election. On social media, vitriol is going unchallenged because, well, who has the time to spend an afternoon arguing with an egg and said egg’s dozen sock puppet accounts? Meanwhile, the hatemongers are given legitimacy in the name of “balanced media”.
So these attitudes go unchallenged, with the proponents enjoying edgy outsider status yet backed up by the powerful. We know where that ends. Replace Pastor Niemöller’s “First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out, for I was not a socialist ... ” with Syrians, refugees, sick, poor or disabled people, immigrants, homosexuals or women, and you get my idea. Solidarity is all-encompassing or it doesn’t exist.
I was in Madrid recently to address the 2017 World Pride Interparliamentary Plenary, and I warned the delegates that progress can easily go backwards unless we are vigilant, vocal, and support each other. Populists and hatemongers are feeling emboldened across the world, and mobilising – not just against the LGBTI community, but also the rights of others. We cannot keep our heads down and hope it all passes by. That includes politicians, who have a duty to challenge this venomous, backwards attitude, even if pilloried in the short term for doing so.
I understand politicians and other public figures may feel a responsibility to compromise to exact change from a position of power. But they also have a social obligation to speak up for the vulnerable, whether or not it’s politically expedient.
With the Tories being propped up by the DUP, I’m worried about our society’s hard-won rights.
These are underpinned by European protection, with independent judges standing by to step in on our behalf if our governments infringe on our rights as citizens. But the upcoming Great Repeal Bill will remove this external scrutiny and, with newspapers increasingly willing to run pictures of judges under the front-page headline “Enemies of the people”, I’m apprehensive of the effect this will have on our democracy.
But this isn’t supposed to be a doom and gloom piece. Heaven knows we’ve had plenty of those lately! This is a rallying call. If you find yourself uneasy, uncomfortable, or full-on outraged, you are not alone. You’re not even in the minority. The xenophobes, the sexists, the racists, the homophobes, all of them are just louder. They always have been, and too often people mistake noise for support. So while they’re bellowing themselves hoarse, we need to regroup, make a plan, and keep the heid.
Simone Veil was a fighter, going toe-to-toe with powerful lobbies and pushing forward with legislation designed to improve the rights of vulnerable people. We could learn a lot from her as we go ahead.