Friday, 24 March 2017

Happy Birthday to the European Union!

Today is Lady Day, the Feast of the Annunciation. The day falls exactly nine months before Christmas, and commemorates the message the Angel Gabriel brought to the Virgin Mary to tell her that she would give birth to Jesus. So the day heralds good news, deliverance, salvation.
Was it by design that on this very day sixty years ago, the leaders of six European countries bound themselves together in a treaty that would bring into being the European Economc Community, what we now call the European Union? Those who originated the European project after the devastation of war were largely Christian politicians and statesmen. They fervently believed that such a treaty was the only way to save the continent from future wars and ensure that nations would flourish together by working together. They were deeply influenced by the insights of Catholic social teaching. Hopes were high as they signed the Treaty of Rome on Lady Day 1957.

So for those of us who still believe that it can only be good when nations and peoples grow closer to one another, the EU’s sixtieth birthday is a milestone to celebrate. And today's pro-Europe march in London will be one way in which this country’s Europeans want to shout it loud and clear. Happy Birthday to the European Union! We want to recognise the lasting benefits that the EU has brought, not only to the members of its own family of nations but far beyond through its capacity to influence the whole of humanity for good.

What are our reasons for celebrating today?

The economy and our global trading relationships overwhelmingly dominated the rhetoric of both sides of the EU Referendum campaign and indeed the debate since the nation voted to leave. These will be the big themes of the Brexit negotiations that are shortly to begin. We have heard far less about what I think are the best of all reasons to celebrate the achievements of the EU. These are about raising the capacity of nations to think geopolitically - which means realising that there are global threats that we can only address by working together. The founding vision of a Europe that would for the first time in centuries be spared the attrition of war was based on a pragmatic assumption about how nations tend to behave in their own interests. How to make self-interest enlightened and constructive rather than competitive and destructive was the question the Six set out to solve in 1957. They thought that if nations like France and Germany needed to trade iron, steel and coal with each other, they would be less likely to find themselves dragged into conflicts that risked destroying each other as had happened in the past.

So I want to put the tasks of peace-making and peace-keeping at the top of my list of reasons for being thankful for the EU's achievements in the past sixty years. In a world where resurgent nationalisms threaten to pull apart the delicate threads that bind peoples together for their own safety and the world's good, the EU has taught (I should say, is teaching) its member nations to transcend narrow self-interest and look beyond their own borders. And this applies to the other huge global challenges we know we must either face together through partnerships and treaty obligations, or we do not face them effectively at all. On their own, nation-states are severely limited in the difference they can make in the areas of climate change, poverty, health care, literacy, migration, inequality, human rights, corruption and all the other ways in which social justice must always be at the heart of our perspective on the world of which we are a part.

It's a bitter thought that just a few days after this diamond jubilee birthday, our Prime Minister will have written the Article 50 letter that will trigger the formal process by which the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. At least she did our partner nations the courtesy of not dating it 25 March, though it is a great pity that she and other UK leaders declined to attend the celebrations in Rome tomorrow. Had we joined the party, it would have helped in a small way to create a positive environment in which to begin the vastly complex Brexit negotiations. This lack of imagination (not to say courtesy) is disappointing when the UK is going to need all the friends it can get in the next two years among the other twenty seven EU nations.

I am not naïve about the EU as it has evolved over sixty years. Its lofty ideals have not yet been fully realised, and the febrile atmosphere among many of its member states makes me wonder whether they ever can be in the foreseeable future. Brexit is both a symptom of this malaise, and is also helping to fuel it. The damage caused by the Euro crisis has not only been economic but reputational too. There is a real crisis of "ownership" across the Union: hearts and minds need to be won, or won back. That, as much as Brexit, may mute today's celebrations.

There is also substance to the arguments of Brexiters that there is democratic deficit in the architecture of the EU's decision-making, with not enough power belonging to the Union's elected representatives in the European Parliament. But these are not arguments against the idea of the European Union. The challenge is to make it more accountable and transparent. I'd hoped David Cameron's promise to negotiate the goal of a "reformed EU" would focus on these systemic difficulties. Instead, all that seemed to concern him was special pleading based on "what's best for Britain" - hardly a slogan that is in the spirit of Europeanism.

By contrast, Pope Francis yesterday outlined his own concept of a union of nations. At a special audience of EU leaders to mark the anniversary, he pleaded with them to place humanity, not mammon, at the heart of their vision. He told them he believed that a generous, outward-looking solidarity among peoples and nations was the only antidote to self-serving populism. And he left his guests in no doubt about their task. "Solidarity is expressed in concrete actions and steps that draw us closer to our neighbours. This is your duty: identify the path of hope."

And this is indeed a day to be upbeat and hopeful. On the day after the EU Referendum, I blogged these words on the Christians For Europe website:

During the campaign, "Christians for Europe" has tried to help frame the referendum as a matter not simply of pragmatic politics ("what's best for Britain") but also of social ethics and a theology of society. We've emphasised the central tenets of our faith: loving our neighbour, standing in solidarity with the disadvantaged, seeking the common good, promoting life together rather than apart. We've wanted to argue that the European project is based on a fundamentally Christian vision of nationhood and common life.

All this still stands. So even if, to our immense sadness, the UK will soon be walking away from the EU, it mustn't stop us from being good Europeans who will continue to work closely with the peoples of our continent who are our natural allies and friends. We must go on taking a global view of our place in the world and not draw in our horizons as if we were some insignificant offshore island. We must continue to work away at trying to create a more wholesome politics of respect and compassion both internationally and in our own country.

In that spirit we shall go on seeking the welfare of the human family and playing our part as good citizens of our nation and our world. That will involve the healing of the divisions that opened up during the Referendum campaign, and we are committed to this too in both word and action. And it goes without saying: we must now, more than ever, say our prayers. 

The Christian gospel of Jesus's death and resurrection makes us people of hope. We do not lose heart.

That was nine months ago precisely. On this Feast of the Annunciation, those words still stand, I believe. Today's party is a celebration of what it means to be good Europeans and to work together as friends and allies. The good news that the Angel Gabriel brought to Mary was about keeping hope alive for the transformation of the human family. So as we wish the EU a happy birthday, we can look back with gratitude for our own part in it, wish it well for the future and pledge that we shall go on being loyal friends and neighbours in this continent that we share together.

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