We need leaders, but not just any leaders

The greatest danger to our security does not come from refugees looking for a better life, but from politicians who take advantage of the spotlight to manipulate fear and anxieties. Español.

Manuel Nunes Ramires Serrano
2 May 2019, 12.01am
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets with members of the Muslim community following the Christchurch attack, New Zealand, March 16, 2019. Photo: BORIS JANCIC/AAP/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Everyone wanted security, but they wanted first to feel more threatened.”

– Gonçalo M. Tavares, Learning to Pray in the Technical Age.

Today, in our democracies, journalists are still expected to cover the news as impartially as possible and to promote an open (and civilised) debate. But their ability to act as a counter-power is being undermined – by authoritarian governments, internet censorship, or demagogues portraying journalists as enemies of the people. And propaganda is making a comeback, threatening democracy and freedom of expression in the process.

Pursuing the news is not easy. What motivates us to write is sometimes as inscrutable as what drives us not to. Competent journalists try to discern what ordinary people do in extraordinary circumstances, and what it means to be human when such circumstances arise.

Anything can be news, but not everything is newsworthy. We should not trade in headlines, and our stories should come with a purpose. At the very least, they should not provide a platform for populists to broadcast their messages, nor should we privilege the impact of a public appearance over its value for the audience in terms of helping people to form their mind.

As George Monbiot argued recently in The Guardian, the “commodity in greatest demand is noise”, and politicians across the world have learned how to provide it. We must acknowledge that our failure to prioritise information over clickbait journalism and sensationalism translates into uninformed citizens, weak institutions and vulnerable democracies.

Trading in headlines

Populism is strengthened by the gap between the promises made by politicians and the impossibility of meeting them. After several years of social anxiety, increasing inequality and decreasing opportunities, populists have been able to convince many citizens that liberal institutions have been corrupted beyond repair and that dialogue no longer makes sense – in their stead, conflict should be heightened and emotions prioritised.

Politicians need to recover their ability to communicate with people and reach consensus – we must recover the use of the term adversaries, not enemies.

Fighting this phenomenon must be done with some knowledge of why people decide to embrace it in the first place. Politicians need to recover their ability to communicate with people and reach consensus – we must recover the use of the term adversaries, not enemies. Engaging in this debate should be a priority everywhere, and not only where populism is already an option and where its proponents have already set the agenda.

Portugal would be an excellent place to start. There is no appetite there for demagogues, and far-right parties have not made it to Parliament. Their crusade against migrants does not have much traction, and their ideas have so far proven to be self-defeating. Portugal is a modern, pluralist democracy, and its people are aware that their history and culture is a product of different traditions. Racism does exist, but race and religion are not often used as political tools.

But it would be foolish to assume that things cannot change. Populists have tripled their votes in Europe over the past twenty years and more than a quarter of European citizens supported some kind of populism at the last elections.

In Portugal, most mainstream parties have stayed away from narratives demonising migrants and accusing European elites of watering down “our civilisation”. As elections near, however, some are willing to give the populist playbook a try. They are not openly racist, but they are quite happy to use a fear-driven discourse for a handful of votes.

Amongst them is an MEP who made headlines a couple of weeks ago by saying that Portugal “needs people, but not any people”. During an interview, Nuno Melo argued that migration is a non-issue in Portugal, but that we should not give in to political correctness and welcome with open arms those who constrain our way of life – they must respect our laws, traditions and culture, and we must enforce strict labour norms to avoid a pull effect.

Most experts would disagree with his analysis. Migration – according to the Sustainable Development Goals and the Global Compact for Migration – is a global issue and it is every country’s responsibility. Addressing it by starting a military intervention in the countries of origin is a terrible idea that would only make a bad situation worse. Presenting war as an antidote to migration is both irresponsible and misleading.

Fortunately, Melo agrees that we should rescue everyone that reaches our shores. But he warns that we must make sure that they are here for the rights reasons and will not endanger in any way Portuguese citizens. It is difficult to disagree on that, but we should remind citizens that the only ones romanticising migration are those using migrants as propaganda tools.

Several attacks that have taken place over the last years in Europe were not perpetrated by refugees, but by second and third-generation citizens struggling to find their place in society partly due to unemployment and racism. The battle to wage is against extremists, not against people with common dreams and aspirations.

The battle to wage is against extremists, not against people with common dreams and aspirations.

Most migrants arriving at our shores lost all they had. They do not want to be here, they would rather be home, with their families and friends. They seek refuge in our countries because they are not allowed to live where they come from. Welcoming them is not an exercise in economic decision-making – it is our responsibility as Europeans.

Leaders, but not any leaders

After the Christchurch shootings that claimed the lives of fifty people, women across New Zealand wore headscarves and hijabs to show solidarity with Muslims. It is easy to understand why. Muslims are part of the community, and the community was attacked. They wanted to show support and empathise with their fellow citizens. And Jacinda Ardern set an example that other leaders across the world ought to follow.

Populists prey on insecurity and misinformation. They manipulate people into muddled feelings and fabricate narratives and imaginary foes. They accuse the elites of doing nothing to quell the plot to destroy our way of life: of opening wide the doors to outsiders, while doing their best to destroy our civilisation - not theirs.

Opposing the populist agenda is difficult because the crisis we are currently going through is a crisis about trust rather than facts. Restoring confidence in liberal institutions and addressing prejudiced narratives requires true leadership from politicians - and common sense from journalists.

Headlines tend to frame the experience, and they often set the tone of the debate. Journalists should be aware of the impact of the words and images they use and refrain from providing a platform for populists to spread confusion. Today, privileging public outrage over information is a common practice, and it has determined how we perceive refugees and talk about migration.

A front page with a politician saying that Portugal “needs people, but not any people” is not helpful if we want to have a rational debate about migration. To shift the narrative, we must focus on the facts: on why Portugal received only 1.674 refugees between December 2015 and the end of the first quarter of 2018, despite being willing to receive at least double that number.

This could be a start of several conversations and interviews with experts and responsible politicians, informing readers about the families that arrived in Portugal during that period, and that more than a thousand other families are expected in 2019 coming from Turkey and Egypt. I am convinced that readers would like to know that the refugees who stayed in Portugal found new homes and people willing to help them, and that government entities and several organisations such as the Portuguese Council for Refugees and the Support Platform for Refugees made helped them to integrate into our society and rebuild their lives.

Portugal – and the European Union – needs leaders, but not any leaders. We need politicians capable of uniting people, not dividing them.

Former Greek Finance Minister and DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025) leading candidate Yanis Varoufakis during a May Day rally in Athens, Greece, May 1, 2019. Photo: Angelos Tzortzinis/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Integration is a challenging process, and the greatest challenge remains how to integrate refugees in the labour market and provide resources for them to achieve financial independence. Bureaucracy does not make it any easy, but it can be done.

Ask a family of ten Syrian refugees who opened a restaurant in Lisbon to share their cuisine with the Portuguese. Find more about the Global Platform for Syrian students, which supports almost two hundred Syrian students who wanted to study in Portugal – five years after his arrival, Hazem Hadla has become the first Syrian refugee supported by the platform to obtain a doctorate in Portugal.

Reality is much more complex than populists make it to be and want us to believe. Images are weapons, as Adam Gopnik argues, but it takes bad actors to weaponise them. We should not allow people who know little about migration to frame how we talk about it.

Refugees do not endanger our way of life. True, they have their traditions. And they look forward to being able, one day, to celebrate them back home. They are not after our jobs and have not come to evangelise Europe. They are here because war has destroyed their homes and they cannot raise their children amidst the rubble.

Portugal – and the European Union – needs leaders, but not any leaders. We need politicians capable of uniting people, not dividing them. The greatest danger to our security does not come from children carrying school report cards to prove they have come here with good intentions, but from politicians who take advantage of the spotlight to manipulate anxieties and try to win elections.

And from journalists who allow them to get away with it.

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