Where do we stand as we seek the balance between freedom and control?

As leaders, we have to overcome all of our historical, political, cultural divides and work towards building trust between communities.” Interview.

David Krivanek Anne Brasseur
12 December 2015

French Revolution - Fouché - Repression of Lyons Insurgency (January 1794).

French Revolution - Fouché - Repression of Lyons Insurgency (January 1794). Wikicommons/ French engravings. Some rights reserved.

openDemocracy (oD): What have been the most pressing questions for you in World Forum for Democracy, 2015?

Anne Brasseur (AB): When we picked the topic for this year’s forum, Freedom versus control, it was after the Snowden revelations. But today, a couple of days after the atrocities in Paris, the topic is even more important. In my opening address of the Forum, I presented a few ideas which I think can help us make sense of these events. Freedom can be abused of course, but there can also be abuse of control.

First is the danger of populism, which is feeding hatred. We have to stand together and we need more solidarity. Our No Hate campaign is more important than ever. The response we have to give to this threat to our freedom is the following: there must be some control, but only as long as it strengthens our democracies and our freedom.

Freedom can be abused of course, but there can also be abuse of control. There are many examples in history. I’m thinking of Joseph Fouché, during the French revolution, who based his power on the knowledge presented only to him by his secret police, or Edgard J. Hoover. Surveillance will always be present. it is not a risk in itself. But the abuse of surveillance is. We need democratic control over that control. We need democratic control over that control.

As politicians, we have to say clearly that there isn’t a free society without some level of security risk. For too long - and some politicians continue to do this today - we tried to tell people that the state can do everything, and that the state can ensure the security of everybody, and through that, remove the need for individual responsibility. But freedom is also linked to individual responsibility. It’s very important that the state ensures that people can take care of themselves, and take responsibility. Otherwise, we are going to see more and more restrictions, and we’ll witness a society defined by more and more control, while not being entirely sure by whom. This is very dangerous.

Do we need more control now? Yes. But we need to make sure this control isn’t out of control.

oD: What type of safeguards should we introduce to prevent this?

AB: As parliamentarians, and local politicians, we have to answer to our constituents. They have questions, and we have to be able to give them answers. If we leave them with no answer, or no-answers, this leads to a feeling of insecurity, and that leads to fear. What we need to avoid - or, since it has already started, to counteract - is making a link between terrorism and migration. 

Fear is the worst counsellor, and could drive our citizens into the arms of populists. So I think that the main message for us, as national parliamentarians, and local elected politicians, is that we have more than ever to talk to people. What we need to avoid - or, since it has already started, to counteract - is making a link between terrorism and migration. We are calling the people who have themselves been fleeing terrorism, terrorists. This also is very dangerous.

We have to look for positive actions in the sea of negatives pictures we see today. In Germany, for instance, there are communities that have been very warmly welcoming refugees. There’s one village, for example, which has been able to keep open the school that was about to close, because of the children of refugees who have settled in the village. This is an example where the welcoming refugees has benefited the whole community. Migration is a global issue that requires global solutions, but also local action. We have to show the good examples.

At the Forum, I had the opportunity to meet two young men. The first was detained in Guantanamo, to which he referred as the “best school for terrorism”. The second was a former neo-Nazi in Germany, who got out of the movement with the help of Exit, a local organisation. I think these two types of radicalisation work in similar ways. So I think that to address the issue of radicalism, we need to work with young people to get the message against hate and fear through. Migration is a global issue that requires global solutions, but also local action. 

Wherever I go, I try to convince people to join the Council of Europe’s No Hate campaign. I had an audience with the Pope two months ago, and he immediately accepted the invitation. Jean Claude-Juncker, and the Secretary General International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, have recently joined as well. As leaders, we have to overcome all of our historical, political, cultural divides and work towards building trust between communities.


President Lyndon B.Johnson meets with Martin Luther King at the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Wikicommons/Yoichi Okamoto. Some rights reserved. 

oD: What’s a good way to build momentum to enhance trust between communities?

AB: A good way is through personal contact. People have different functions, but they are all human beings. Everybody who has some form of responsibility, in sports, in religion, in politics or in civil society, they all want to say no to hate. Dialogue is the most important element, across differences, however difficult it might be. 

My mandate as President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe will end in January, but I will stay on as a member of the campaign, and perhaps I will have even more time for it.

I might use that to work more on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue, in which I’ve been involved for many years. I will continue to see religious leaders. I had the opportunity to use my mandate as President to build up a good network.

Today, you have calls from people such as Mr Jeb Bush in the US, who has suggested that refugees be listed according to whether they are Christian or not. But this is not Christian. I am not a believer, but I am very interested in the religious dimension. If I understand Christianity’s message, it’s a message of openness, of tolerance, of accepting everybody. It’s in the Bible. It’s the politicians who use religion to discriminate. Not the religious leaders.

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.

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