The European Union: Christendom or Antichrist?
This article carries a health warning – it’s biased! I admit to being a Euroholic: seeing myself as European first and British second; holding a Euro bank account in France; seeing no reason why we shouldn’t go for greater or even full European integration. Horrors! How can anyone get like this?
It’s simply because I spent my career working around Europe with people who started as foreigners but became colleagues and friends, and worked closely with the UN in Geneva and the European Commission in Brussels. Knowing Europe from the inside - the good, the bad and the ugly - made a big difference for me.
So why do we dislike the EU?
Why do so many, especially the British (including some Christians: try Google for ‘EU 666’ and see what turns up!) dislike the EU? The simplest answer is that we are insular by geography and, reasonably enough, have a corresponding outlook. I often used to wind-up continental colleagues by reminding them that Britain has not been successfully invaded since 1066! But others are sceptical too, even the French and Dutch who caused such consternation by rejecting the new European Constitution.
I believe the main underlying factor is that the way the EU is run goes against the grain of 21st century attitudes: predominantly the deep suspicion of authority and institutions, and a dislike of rules formulated at a distance that make us feel out of control of our lives.
Today’s pessimistic outlook on the future finds it hard to catch the vision of a better Europe. Just contrast expectations at the start of the 20th century: utopia through science and empire, but so soon shattered by science’s invention of the machine gun and atomic bomb, and the disintegration of Empire. We have seen the pain and manipulation that history brings and we do not like it.
So we reject the ‘big picture’ certainties and retreat into smaller refuges, valuing Europeanisation and globalisation only as consumers and travellers, intent on fashioning our individuality and personal identity.
On the other hand…
Yet were it not for the EU we would not have anything like the freedoms we take for granted today. I worked on the ‘Single European Market’ that came into being in 1992. For the first time, people, goods, services and money could move freely throughout the EU: no more routine Customs controls; the freedom to live, work, study and retire in any Member State; to travel unhindered and more cheaply (Ryanair and EasyJet couldn’t do business without the Single Market); and buy and sell anywhere. This made a huge difference, but we assume it was always there. Most Member States have no passport controls for travel within the EU and half have adopted the Euro.
But the purpose of this article is neither to list the benefits of the EU nor make excuses for some bad decisions and silly regulations. Let me just highlight two issues: democracy and diversity.
Boris Johnson MP recently presented a televised comparison of the EU and the Roman Empire1, which gave me the impression that Europe today would have much more in common with the way the Roman Empire worked if Nazi Germany had won the Second World War.
Thankfully, the democratic heart of the EU is here instead, even though it sometimes seems otherwise, because it is the European Commission (civil service) which proposes legislation, not the elected politicians - in a community of 25 nations, you have to do it like this.
Once proposed by the Commission, all legislation has to be approved by the Council of the European Union, consisting of government ministers from all Member States, under a system weighted in favour of the smaller countries. It then has to be approved or rejected by the directly elected European Parliament (who is your MEP?). In key areas of taxation, immigration, foreign and security policy, any measure will fall if turned down by just one Member State. And the main treaties, such as the European Constitution, must be approved by each Member State’s government. So democratic and national safeguards are built-in - and my time in Brussels showed me that the Commission staff are not faceless bureaucrats, but real, ordinary people like you and me, simply concerned to make Europe better.
I’ve never understood why so many people think the EU is making us all identikit people in an identikit Europe. My own experience is that people from across Europe have at least as strong a national identity as ever. The French are no less French. Even the Dutch, who have to speak other languages because practically nobody else understands theirs, stand out anywhere you meet them. You could argue that Belgium is unnecessary as one half speaks Dutch and the other half French, so just redraw the Franco-Dutch boundary - but try telling that to a Belgian!
The EU has to recognise this cultural diversity. There are no less than 20 official Community languages and everything is translated into all of them. Moreover, the British are not the worst linguists in Europe; that is left to the French. French, the former diplomatic language, gave way to English as soon as the east Europeans arrived in 1990 seeking a lingua franca to replace Russian. The hideous identikit Esperanto had no chance.
The EU’s motto, now written into the draft Constitution, is ‘United in diversity’. We need not fear loss of diversity. The differences not only survive but seem to thrive.
The God bit
The EU, like anything else, needs to be measured by biblical standards as well as those we have looked at so far. I can suggest four:
The EU came into being in 1957 to help re-build Europe after the war, because ‘Europeans were determined to prevent such killing and destruction ever happening again’2 and also, steps had to be taken to co-ordinate food production and so prevent ongoing shortages and possible famine - that’s how the Common Agricultural Policy came into being.
This is working for Shalom, a blend of peace, harmony and wholeness. Not just the absence of war, but the rebuilding of wholeness within a Europe whose people have spent most of their history killing each other. It is the peacemaking of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:9) that has made Europe different from anything it has been in the past.
Robert Warren describes peacemaking as ‘being constructive, not destructive; sharing in God’s mission to bring wholeness (‘Shalom’) to the world; facing reality and seeking to resolve conflicts; respecting all people, and the earth and its resources ... Cutting across the need to win battles; our instinct to avoid conflict; our urge to be the best and the strongest’3.
Cardinal Basil Hume applied this Beatitude in the context of Europe: ‘Conflict and confrontation characterize much of our politics, industrial relations, and international affairs. Because of the way we have learned to think it is often easier to mobilize people to oppose than co-operate ... Those, however, who see themselves as children of God and as part of a single creation have to reject such attitudes and their destructive consequences. They develop partnership not conflict, friendship not hostility, peace not war’4.
b. The Great Commandment
The second part of the Great Commandment (Luke 10:27) is ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. Jesus illustrated it by the parable of the Good Samaritan, showing how the lives of two people from different cultures, belief systems, and estranged races became interwoven through the practical outworking of the Commandment, despite the risk and cost.
The EU is all about creating structures for reconciliation. One of the most encouraging things I saw in Poland in the 1990s was the sheer number of people, especially young people, visiting western Europe to engage with the community of which they wanted their country to be a future part. The result of that quest is with us today in a revitalised country and a new Member State.
This Greek word is normally translated ‘fellowship’, but in the Catholic church ‘solidarity’ (Latin ‘Communio’) - hence ‘SolidarnoÑƒ’, the seminal Polish trades union of the 1980s. I like the ‘solidarity’ translation. It speaks of standing alongside each other, in and under something bigger than we are.
Solidarity is not just standing still alongside people. It demands action. A candidate Member State, before it can join the EU, must have developed ‘a stable democracy that guarantees the rule of law, human rights and the protection of minorities ... a functioning market economy and a civil service capable of applying EU laws’5. There had to be a lot of solidarity in action with the eastern European countries that joined in 2004, through 13 years of programmes, in some of which I was involved, to work together through the long haul from what they were to what they are. The same had been true to a lesser extent with Spain and Greece in the 1980s.
Basil Hume6 interestingly brings the topic of ‘subsidiarity’ into his discussion on solidarity. Subsidiarity is Eurospeak for decentralising anything that can be decided locally, and the EU has been moving towards this for some time - though sometimes finding it a challenge. He suggests that ‘the fundamental and religious respect for human dignity that characterises’ solidarity leads to subsidiarity, under which people ‘should be empowered to take decisions for their own lives with due regard for the interests of the wider community’. I like the balance that he gives between the privilege of individual empowerment and the responsibility to and within the wider community.
d. The Kingdom of God
Europe was once a collection of nations whose identity and alliances were established primarily through their religious affiliation as Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox countries. Church and state were inextricably intertwined and had been since the time of Constantine. This explains why seven Member States pressed very hard for the Christian heritage of the EU countries to be stated clearly in the European Convention, and why many have been so hesitant about opening the door to Turkey, an Islamic-majority country.
But Christendom is now history and today the individual reigns supreme. Hume again: ‘Western European culture has sanctified the authority of the individual ... No authority external to the individual is acknowledged’7.
The Kingdom of God presents a third way. Howard Snyder draws out the practical meaning of the Kingdom today as including a new social order, a reconciled humanity and environment based on love, justice, holiness and peace (shalom in the biblical sense). It promises nothing less than radical social reconstruction’8.
This suggests that we need to reject a Christendom model for the EU, which Snyder sees as identified with the political state or utopian models. We need equally to reject models that take no account of any authority or community beyond the individual. We are instead looking at being fellow-workers with the incarnational Kingdom-building God, through our engagement with the EU’s challenges and opportunities.
Let me give Basil Hume the last word: ‘The future will not be secured by political tinkering or by social engineering and improved technology. What is needed is response to the centuries-old call of Christ to true conversion of heart and mind. There will be no better world without better people. And no better people without growth in genuine love. And there can be no growth in genuine love without faith in God and a true and lasting love of him’9.
- Boris Johnson and the Dream of Rome, BBC2, 29th January and 5th February 2006
- Robert Warren and Sue Mayfield, Life Attitudes (CHP, 2004) pp.55f
- Basil Hume, Remaking Europe (SPCK, 1994) p.14
- Hume, pp.39f
- Howard A Snyder, Models of the Kingdom (Abingdon, 1991) p.148
- Hume, p.103