Europe must learn how to share

I once heard a very funny story about how a little girl learned about sharing: her mother, after giving her a chocolate bar, asked her to give a quarter of it to a friend. “This, Mary, is sharing. It is important that you learn how to do it,” the mother said.

The mother then turned to a friend she was having a conversation with. They continued chatting, but were soon interrupted by the daughter’s crying. “Sweetie, what’s the matter?” asked the mother, astonished. Big tears running down her cheeks, the little girl answered: “Mary is learning to share!”

I am reminded of it every time I hear about another rich country protesting about poor people daring to try to find a better life elsewhere. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the rise of populist parties in Western Europe, all have one thing in common: the relatively rich do not want to share their good fortune.

Globalisation has helped lift millions of people out of abject poverty. Just think of the fantastic leap forward that China has made — its unprecedented development would have been impossible without the developed countries’ willingness to export jobs to the country.

Or, in Latin America, the people of Mexico were greatly helped by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that allowed tariff-free exports to the U.S. – and which, sadly, President-Elect Donald Trump now wants to tear off.

In emerging Europe, it’s been a mixed bag. Eastern European countries and their citizens have been turned into convenient scapegoats by politicians in richer Western European states, but the reality is that the biggest benefit they had from joining the European Union has been freedom of movement.

The difference in wealth between the poor East and the rich West was so great that Eastern industries were simply wiped out and property in these countries became, almost overnight, unaffordable for the citizens of the Eastern European states.

In the years before EU accession, when the Eastern European states were forced to open their markets to EU goods and services, this unfair competition pushed a lot of people into worse poverty than they suffered during the communist regimes.

When their countries finally joined the EU, their citizens were accused of “stealing” jobs when taking advantage of freedom of movement to work in the West. Sharing was no longer fun.

Over the past three years, Europe has seen a wave of refugees, mainly from war-torn Syria but also from poor states such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia or Sudan, trying to get a better life. A lot of people, both in the East and West – with the notable exceptions of Germany and Sweden – flatly refuse to help.

The fear of sharing is stronger than the fear of Europe’s catastrophic demography, which points to rapidly aging societies in desperate need of an influx of young people able to work.

Mary, the little girl in the story, learned when she grew older that sharing can bring opportunities, because it enables you to get close to others and benefit from what they, in turn, can share with you. This is a lesson that individuals seem to be able to learn, but entire populations, for some reason, choose to ignore. Humanity must still be in its infancy.