One-on-one | EU

Beatriz Becerra: For me, liberalism is more of an attitude to life

By - 07.12.2018

MEP talks about a post-Brexit EU, migration policy, and what next year’s elections could mean for the future of Europe.

Beatriz Becerra is a Spanish European Parliament representative in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group. A psychologist and writer by trade, Becerra is the vice-chair of the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights, while also maintaining an active role in committees on employment and social affairs and women’s rights.

She became an MEP in 2014 and has placed the focus of her work on the fight against the violent radicalization of youth.

In her role as MEP, Becerra has worked to highlight the efforts of women fighting for change around the world. In 2016, she nominated Nadia Murad Basee — an anti sexual violence activist from the Yazidi community in Iraq — for the Sakharov Prize, awarded annually by the European Parliament for freedom of conscience and the defense of human rights. Basee went on to win the award, alongside fellow Yazidi activist Lamiya Aji Basha, and in 2018 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside Denis Mukwege.

Becerra has also played a major role in the formation of the Alliance of Women Against Radicalization and Extremism (AWARE) platform. The network, oriented to the study and prevention of radicalization from a gender perspective, has received huge international support in its first two years.

In 2018, Becerra again nominated the Sakharov Prize winner, Oleg Sentsov, a filmmaker and writer from Crimea, who was arrested by Russian officials in 2014 and imprisoned for 20 years on charges of plotting terrorism acts. Human rights groups have declared these allegations to be fabricated, and the sentence to be unjust, and have strongly advocated for his rights. Sentsov was awarded the Sakharov Prize while still in prison.

As a novelist, Becerra has published three novels, which have been generally well received by critics and readers alike. In 2018, she also published the book “Eres liberal y no lo sabes” (You Are Liberal and You Don’t Know It), which she described as “a manifesto for an inclusive and modern liberalism, free of dogmatism.”  

K2.0 spoke to Becerra about this book, but also about the state of human rights in Europe and the world, liberalism vs. nationalism-populism in the post-Brexit EU and the upcoming European Parliament elections that may well determine the future of the continent.

Photo courtesy of Beatriz Becerra’s private archive.

K2.0: Your book is titled, “You’re a Liberal, But You Don’t Know It.” Are we really all liberals?

Beatriz Becerra: Well, I was a liberal and I didn’t know. Now I know. And I think that the same thing that happened to me, probably happens to many people. What I do in this book that I just published is make a kind of political manifesto; it’s a call to action that is based on my own experience. And I think that if something like this happened to me, it probably happens to many people.

Could you describe this situation of coming to terms with understanding what being a liberal means?

For me, liberalism is more of an attitude to life. It’s far beyond an ideology. I would not compare liberalism to other ideological positions or movements like communism or socialism, or even conservatism.

I think that we, the liberals, those who believe in liberal democracy, we share a very strong commitment, a very strong conviction on freedom and equality as the main axes that are the [foundation] to our life and the society we want to create.

You call it “pragmatism with principles.” What do you mean?

Yes. This is something that I took from Ms. Federica Mogherini, because it describes very well what I think is very timely now, and very necessary — to act in a European way. The European way is pragmatism with principles.

That means to look for goals, to look for results, to solve problems, but with values; with a number of values that are the ones that we share here in Europe.

How can we apply this in other countries that are not a part of the EU, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina?

I think that the principles of liberalism are universal. And in fact, one of the main assets that I describe in the “Decalogue” that I wrote is that universal rights are the unique contract that we all share.

Photo courtesy of Beatriz Becerra’s private archive.

In fact, we are now celebrating the 70-year anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Because that is a contract. It’s something that, on the one hand, grants each one of us access to these rights, but is at the same time compelling each one of us to preserve and grant these rights to the rest of the world.

Speaking of human rights, you also supported the nomination of Oleg Sentsov for the Sakharov Prize. In the region, we have several winners. In Kosovo, we had Adem Demaçi and Ibrahim Rugova, while in Bosnia, Oslobođenje, a daily newspaper, won. The Sakharov Prize is quite well known in our part of the world. What is the significance of these awards [elsewhere]?

I always say that the Sakharov Prize is the soul of the European Parliament and the European institutions because of course it’s a very well-known prize; I would say it’s one of the most important, only behind the Nobel Prize. And sometimes it’s shared, like the last Nobel Peace Prize, which was given to our laureates [activists against sexual violence] Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad.

But for me, the Sakharov Prize is the incarnation of both this commitment, this compromise and also, of these values. Awarding it to Oleg Sentsov this year, when we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Sakharov Prize, is not only a very strong message to the totalitarianism that is the Putin regime that has imprisoned this filmmaker, a well-known Ukrainian freedom activist… It’s not just this strong message from Europe to Putin, but it’s also a commitment.

I would say that 2016, with Brexit, started a new era for Europe, especially. But not only for Europe.

It means that, for life, when an activist or a very special person is awarded with the Sakharov Prize, we the Europeans are committed for life to protect him and to defend him. And when I say Europeans, it’s because the prize is given by the European Parliament, and we, the parliamentarians, are only the representatives, so the prize is given by the 500 million Europeans.

2018 seems like a year — well, one in quite a few — where people are starting to have a sense that things are on a kind of downhill slope. They are starting to lose hope, especially with the rise of the far right. In Europe, but also elsewhere. Is that the sense that you get, especially in the context of human rights?

Yes. I think that in general we are living in a period that probably, for me, started with Brexit. I would say that 2016, with Brexit, started a new era for Europe, especially. But not only for Europe.

Because after Brexit came Trump. After Trump, we have been facing several electoral processes that have been managed by nationalist-populists, and we have seen how the government in Italy, for example, has been taken by this extreme right, or left, in some cases. But the thing that they have in common is that they want to destroy Europe from inside. And this is the real threat.

They will use this common point of argument about migration, but it’s not true that they care about migration; they just want to break this community of values we have, and they want to use the fragmentation we have on the other side of the trench to take over the institutions. And that is, for me, the main danger that we are facing in the next elections that will come in May.

Before we speak about the next elections, maybe it would be good to talk about the migrations, since you mentioned them. In Bosnia and Herzegovina there is currently a situation at the Bosnian-Croatian border, and as we all know, Croatia is in the EU. So, at the border with the European Union, where there are tens of thousands of migrants who are attempting to cross into the EU. What would be Europe’s best solution to this issue, but also for the people on the move who are trying to reach a safer environment?

As with many other issues, but especially with migration, what we need is a common policy. That’s for sure. It’s something very obvious, but it’s very difficult. And, in fact, we have had almost five years to make the arrangements and changes we need to; the Dublin Regulation etc., and all of the agreements that we’re trying to put in place.

Photo courtesy of Beatriz Becerra’s private archive.

But the truth is that we do not have this common policy. A common policy means to have a strategic approach to migration as a fact. It’s not a crisis, it’s not a specific period, it’s not only after a war like the one in Syria that we’re having this large number of people [seeking refuge] from the war… Migration is a phenomenon that has always happened, but now in a globalized world it will be happening all the time.

So, that’s why we as Europeans need to have this compromise — not only the right legal context, but the framework we need to [take action that aligns with] reality. But we also need to keep the long term in sight. We cannot make these very short term solutions that we are not able to carry through.

[Focusing on] the long term means to know and to decide how many people, in which condition, with what kind of profile, we are able and would be willing to integrate into Europe… It’s not integrating people as refugees; we are speaking about integrating them as citizens.

Regarding Bosnia, for example… for me, Bosnia is kind of a little Europe. It’s a very small example of how different languages, ethnicities, etc. live together after surviving what is probably the worst situation that could ever happen. Within Europe, we have lived through that as well; we are now celebrating the passing of one century since World War I.

But Bosnia, for me, could be the case study of how to deal with migration crossing through [borders] to get to the EU. If Bosnia was a part of the EU, it would probably have a very good added value in doing that.

Again, to relate this issue of migration with the rise of populist and nationalist sentiments: We have to look at the migrations as a way to increase [European] capabilities in the future; to enrich not only the culture, of course, and the economy, but also the mobility of people. It’s something that we have to face.

So, pragmatism with principles means we have to make a plan with concrete policies, but also with values that sustain the whole EU.

We’ve already mentioned the European elections that are coming up quite soon. What are your predictions? Is there going to be a further push to the right, or are citizens in the EU going to vote in a different way?

I think that the result of the elections will depend a lot on what the liberal democrats — and when I say ‘liberal democrats,’ I mean it in a very inclusive, umbrella way — what we are able to do and how we are able to act together in order to call to an alliance of voters who will decide these elections…

Counterparting this the ‘call’ of the joint nationalist-populist front is happening in a very systematic way. So, if we are able to, say, in the next two months — the conservatives, the progressives, the so-called liberals, the greens, all those who really defend freedoms, rights and the rule of law and all that compounds the real competitive advantage, which is democracy in Europe — if we are able to do that, we would be able to defeat that attempt.

If we are not, in the most pessimistic sense, I would say that we could find the Parliament in 2019 composed of a very strange mix of extremists that will block and water down many important initiatives that we have to push along, specifically migration policy.

This sort of unity of the right versus the dissolution of the left — if we can use the terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ — it seems to be a common theme in every country, from Bosnia, throughout Europe and even in the U.S.. What’s the best way to unite the left?

For me, it’s impossible to speak in terms of the ‘left’ and ‘right.’ Because that does not exist anymore. There is no appropriate way to link the brand or the label with the content. Because many of the political movements that we see now call themselves ‘leftist,’ but they are just totalitarians. The same thing has happened with the right, but that’s why I always insist on differentiating between the liberal democrats and the extremists or the totalitarians.

"The policies are what differentiate if you are more conservative or progressive, but I think that continuing the talk about the left and right is not helping at all - not in Europe, for sure."

The extreme left and the extreme right are cohabiting and making this movement, this new front, and they don’t have any problems in living together and joining their forces and resources. But on this side of the table, I would say that the difference between a conservative approach or a progressive approach is more symbolic than realistic.

The policies are what differentiate whether you are more conservative or progressive, but I think that continuing the talk about the left and right is not helping at all — not in Europe, for sure. And now, the only counter-position is liberalism vs. nationalism-populism. This is the real difference.

It sounds like it’s a battle between good and evil.

I would say so. And I would say we shouldn’t be shy in accepting that. Remember that book, “The Road” [by Cormac McCarthy]? It says, “We are the good ones because we carry the fire.” We are carrying that fire and we have the responsibility to keep and maintain the fire of democracy.

I have a better suggestion for the title of your book: I think it should be called “You Can Create a Better World, and You Don’t Know It.”

That’s good! It will be the second part.K

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in English.

Feature image courtesy of Beatriz Becerra’s private archive.