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The Pan-European Picnic and the Power of Civil Society Forces

In the guest commentary, Goran Buldioski, the director of the Berlin office of the Open Society Foundations, appeals to draw the right lessons from the pan-European picnic in 1989 on the Austro-Hungarian border near Sopron: "We have to rekindle the strength and energy of civil society forces."

Thirty years ago, civil society forces, i.e. ordinary citizens, organized a picnic on the border between Austria and Hungary and thus provided an important impetus for the fall of the Iron Curtain. But while Europe is rightly celebrating this event, European governments are increasingly restricting the leeway for the very forces that made this historic event possible in the first place.

From today's perspective, the Pan-European Picnic is considered to be a decisive pioneer for the later collapse of the Eastern Bloc. On August 19, 1989, the border was opened for a few hours - and several hundred East Germans fled to the West.

The courage of individuals

Again and again politicians point out the importance of this picnic. In a speech in 2009, Chancellor Angela Merkel recalled that the gate to freedom had been opened "an irreversible part" at that time. Much less attention was paid to another sentence by Merkel, according to which history is composed of "small, courageous steps by individuals". This is the essential core of the pan-European picnic - but it is often neglected in memory and appreciation.

Instead, the focus is on politicians and / or the role of the authorities. The driving force, however, were citizens who consciously accepted the associated risk. Civil society organizations such as the Maltese and the Paneuropean Union have worked hard to mobilize citizens. As Merkel rightly said, "small, courageous steps by individual people" have changed the course of history for the long term.

Appreciate successes

In retrospect, many actors claimed a crucial role and retold the story of the Pan-European Picnic to their advantage. Unfortunately, this retrospective focus on individual people often gives the wrong impression that a homogeneous herd with no mind of its own has blindly followed an individual or a leadership group.

In this sense, the anniversary is a right and important opportunity to recognize the important role of civil society forces in peaceful democratization processes while at the same time recognizing the successes and changes that have been achieved since the end of the Iron Curtain: no member state of the Council of Europe in the 21st century has the Death penalty applied. In the Eastern European countries - with the exception of counterexamples such as Hungary - lively media landscapes have emerged, albeit in need of improvement, and parliaments have become a place for a pluralistic exchange of opinions. There are changes of government, parties compete for the favor of the electorate, and societies allow a variety of opinions.

Smear campaigns and intimidation

We often lose sight of these achievements because we now take them for granted, or because we instead concentrate on what is still, or unfortunately, already in the wrong place.

Much has been and is being reported about the worrying developments in countries like Hungary and Poland that seriously jeopardize these democratic achievements. I had to experience firsthand what it means when democracy is gradually abolished. As part of my work at the Open Society Foundations in Budapest, it became clear that our office could no longer continue its activities with the necessary independence, security and integrity.

On a personal level, employees and myself were exposed to hate campaigns and intimidation. Counting anti-Semitic posters directed against our founder George Soros soon became part of my daily routine on the way to work. A pro-government newspaper dubbed me a "Soros Mercenary" while the independent media was increasingly shattered. Finally, last year we made the decision to move to Berlin.

Drawing the right lessons

We had to leave Hungary because the freedom of action for civil society actors is increasingly limited. But if the Pan-European Picnic teaches us one thing, it is the strength and importance of civil society and civic forces. Without them, this event that we are celebrating today, 30 years later, as so crucial for the course of European history, would not have taken place. But have we really learned the right lessons from this? I'm afraid we have learned a lot, but not enough. Otherwise we would encourage these forces and give them the leeway to initiate such changes. At least we wouldn't try to silence them.

What could civil society actors like those who organized the picnic 30 years ago achieve today? At that time they were strong enough to break free from repression. Today we see a large number of protests in the east and west of the European Union, but their overall impact remains limited. The West makes it too easy for itself if it restricts itself to wanting to further promote democratization in the Eastern European countries. Rather, the Western European states should question themselves critically, for example their role in promoting authoritarian leaders like in Hungary. They should eliminate cracks in their own democratic structures.

New repression

The reality is rather different. Instead of promoting civil society forces, we have to watch how new forms of repression emerge in central parts of Europe. In Spain, for example, where the "Law for the Protection of Citizens" passed in 2015 massively restricts the freedom of expression and assembly of Spaniards. Or in France, where civil rights are undermined by anti-terror laws. Or Italy, which unceremoniously declares sea rescue to be a criminal offense to save refugees from drowning.

Such restrictions serve as models and precedents for illiberal governments - for example in Poland and Hungary. This is not the Europe of democratic values ‚Äč‚Äčthat politicians love to adorn themselves with. This is a Europe that has to live up to its own democratic standards - and for that it needs its progressive citizens.

Reignite forces

We have to learn the right lessons from the Pan-European Picnic in view of these developments and the cracks in democracies, in particular the rise of right-wing populist movements across Europe and the fact that established right-wing conservative parties are adopting their right-wing extremist agenda. We need to rekindle the strength and energy of the civil society forces that made such an event possible in the first place. Not to start a new revolution or tear down walls like 30 years ago. No, today we need these forces to prevent new walls from being built - physically and in our minds.

The Pan-European Picnic underscores the power that committed citizens can develop for democracies and open societies. Politicians in Eastern and Western Europe should push these forces forward instead of always putting new obstacles in their way. (Goran Buldioski, August 18, 2019)

Goran Buldioski is director of the Berlin office of the Open Society Foundations and co-director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe.

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