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“Get out of the complacency”

Shada Islam at the “Friends of Europe” think tank is championing the future of Europe. She knows how the European idea may be promoted more successfully. 

Pro Europa: Shada Islam ist Leiterin für Europa und Geopolitik beim Brüsseler Thinktank „Friends of Europe“
© Gleamlight

Shada Islam is the Head of Europe and Geopolitics at Brussels-based think tank “Friends of Europe”. “Politico” newspaper counts the Pakistani-born former journalist among the “20 women who are shaping Brussels”. In our interview, Shada Islam speaks about her passion for Europe and Germany’s responsibility.

Four years ago at the Munich Security Conference, then German president Joachim Gauck called on Germany to shoulder greater international responsibility. Do you see this happening or is Germany still too hesitant?

Whatever hesitance about becoming a global player may exist in Germany, the fact of the matter is that it is an important power. It has a profile on the global stage, both as a leading member of the European Union and in its own capacity as a nation. I know that there is a lot of caution in Germany and I respect this. However, when decisions have to be taken within Europe regarding domestic or global affairs, Germany has been and will be a powerful player.

Which decisions are you thinking of?

On immigration policy, Germany has taken the lead. It has done the same with the Euro crisis. Now everyone is waiting for Germany to respond to the French proposals for the future of the EU. On the international stage, Germany has played an important role in dealing with Iran. On Brexit, Germany is the key player when it comes to the question of what kind of deal Britain will get. In terms of Russia, no decisions can be taken without Germany on board. In many Asian and African countries, Germany is seen as the voice of Europe. It is a key player – whether the Germans like it or not.

We have played that nationalistic game and we have come out of it all the wiser.
Shada Islam, think tank “Friends of Europe”

Still, some people say that Germany’s position in Europe is getting weaker, especially compared to France with energetic Emmanuel Macron.

When I was a journalist, every day counted. One day, Europe was down, the next day it was up. As an analyst, I think we need to look at the bigger picture. Obviously, Emmanuel Macron is a young, dynamic newcomer. Angela Merkel has been there for many years and everyone respects her, but she does not have the charisma that comes with being the new kid on the block. She may look a bit tired and he may be full of energy, but I don’t go for the short term trends anymore, I rather believe in the strength and profile of a country.

The think tank you work for is called “Friends of Europe”. It seems a bit as if friends of Europe are having a hard time at the moment. How do you think advocating for Europe can be successful?

First of all: We are not called “Friends of the EU”, we make a very strong distinction there. We are very much in favour of a United Europe, a strong Europe on the world stage which connects with its citizens and responds to their needs. However we are very critical of the EU institutions. We are pushing them to become more dynamic and to take action rather than just go on waffling. Moreover, as Europeans we need to have a better narrative of who we are. Europe has so many strengths and there are so many lessons it can teach but it just does not play that role. At international conferences, I hear a lot of talk about national and territorial sovereignty these days. We are the only ones talking about partnership and cooperation. We have played that nationalistic game and we have come out of it all the wiser.

Whether I look like a European or not – that’s what I am.
Shada Islam, think tank “Friends of Europe”

There has been quite a lot of civil pro-European movement recently, for example by “Pulse of Europe”. Can these initiatives have an impact?

Absolutely. I think they are the most significant development of the last few years. They are extremely crucial if we are to involve real people – you and me – to stand up and be counted. We saw this after the Brexit vote among young people in the UK and we see it with ‘Pulse of Europe’ or with Macron’s idea of citizens’ conventions. I think that these initiatives can change the discourse. But they are not enough on their own, we also need the political leadership to stand up. We have to get out of the complacency we have developed and be more daring.

In your Twitter profile, you describe yourself as “Citizen of the world. Proud progressive. Loud liberal. Unabashed idealist.” That sounds a bit pugnacious. Does one have to be pugnacious as a pro-European these days?

Yes. You know, I was born in Lahore but came to Belgium as a student and stayed. Only about 20 years ago, after all this time, did I realize that I am truly a European. This is my home. When I had that epiphany, my whole attitude towards my life changed. Whether I look like a traditional European or not – that’s what I am. Recently, Trump, Brexit, the refugee crises and the rise of populism made me realize that all the things I hold dear – my progressive ideas, my liberal thinking, the reason Europe resonates with me so deeply – were being subject to a frontal attack. So I am not going to hide anymore. I want to play a role in preserving what I believe in. Europe, in all its diversity, matters – to me personally but also to other Europeans and to the rest of the world.

Interview: Helen Sibum