Europe's crises of giving

Big demands from Greece, Ukraine, and fleeing migrants challenge Europe’s legacy of generosity. A timely book on altruism suggests a way out. 

Syrian refugees rest after disembarking from a Belgian Navy vessel in Italy June 10. Around 250 migrants from Syria arrived at the Sicilian harbour from a Damascus refugee camp.

Well known for the generosity of its welfare state, Europe is feeling a fair share of “compassion fatigue” these days as a result of three crises on its doorstep.

One is a massive flow of migrants, desperate to enter the European Union and fleeing on boats across the Mediterranean. Another is a demand by eurozone member Greece for more bailout money and more time to reform its troubled economy. A third is Ukraine’s need for European aid to avoid a $15 billion financial crisis with its creditors and enable it to stand up to Russia.

All three crises challenge the EU’s identity as a model of peace, unity, and inclusiveness. They trigger the Continent’s past fears about strangers who don’t fit in, or a xenophobia that once drove Europe’s wars and explain the recent rise of anti-immigrant political parties.

The EU has rightly set high standards for its 28 member states – and for any border state or migrant who seeks to enter its club of nations. The EU cannot continue to be a model of governance if it bends its own rules too much or throws big money at people or countries not willing to help themselves. This caution has led EU officials to keep a watchful eye on how much Greece and Ukraine are willing to put their own house in order. The EU also tracks progress in the countries of Africa and the Middle East that are the main sources of migrants. Are those countries ending conflict, honoring human rights, and curbing corruption?

At the same time, many leaders in Europe are weighing their own responsibility for these trouble spots. These include the excessive loans made to Greece, the EU’s missteps in Ukraine’s revolution and, of course, Europe’s historic roles in colonizing and exploiting Africa and the Middle East.

Europe’s current hand-wringing is, at heart, a lesson about its giving spirit. It would be too easy to focus on each crisis and lose sight of how much Europe remains a model of compassion. Anywhere from a fifth to a third of Europeans, for example, are volunteers in social or religious activities. Europe is also a major global giver of foreign aid.

In a new book entitled “Altruism,” French thinker Matthieu Ricard makes a case for acknowledging what he calls the “banality of good,” or recognizing that behavior such as generosity is commonplace and punctuates the daily lives of people. The book is a timely message as Europe struggles with these big decisions.

Mr. Ricard finds that cooperation and mutual aid are far more prevalent than news reports or prejudices suggest. Altruism, he writes, “seems to be a determining factor of the quality of existence, now and to come, and should not be relegated to the realm of noble utopian thinking maintained by a few big-hearted, naive people. We must have the perspicacity to acknowledge this and the audacity to say it.”

This does not mean, he adds, that altruist people should minimize or tolerate the misdeeds of others. The main aim is to alleviate suffering and to “break the cycle of hatred.”

If Europeans were to better recognize the “commonplace” of good in their lives, in other words, it might help solve these crises and also enable others to see themselves as capable of doing good. Both “sides” might end up winning.

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