Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Mrs May's is not the only letter to Donald Tusk this week

Mrs May is not the only person who is writing this week to Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council. Here is the letter I have sent. I don't have a personal courier to deliver it by hand, as she does. Nevertheless I hope he will have received it by email and will be interested, even glad, to hear a different voice coming out of the United Kingdom as the Prime Minister triggers Article 50.

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Dear Mr Tusk

You will be receiving a long-awaited letter from the UK Prime Minister this week. In it she will be giving formal notice that our nation intends to leave the European Union.

I did not want to let this week pass without writing to you myself. This is a purely personal letter of course. But I know that millions of British citizens will be feeling the same way as we head inexorably towards the door marked Brexit.

It will not be news to you that those of us who voted Remain in last year's Referendum are very sad that events have come to this point. That is putting it mildly. We believe as firm Europeans that the UK's proper place in the world is to be a committed EU member state. We think that the EU has been all the better for Britain's belonging to its family of nations. The UK has had so much to bring to the Union, and so much to gain from it in return. We have seen relationships across the EU grow and flourish during the years we have been a member. The world's safety and wellbeing surely lies in nations collaborating together for the sake of all our peoples and of all humanity. "Ever-closer union" is a noble aspiration.

So like the many who make up "the 48%" (perhaps more now than when the vote took place?), I am utterly dismayed at the prospect of walking away from the European Union in two year's time. There is no point in rehearsing the arguments now that the decision is made. But I don't think I am alone in wanting to place on record my profound sense of disappointment as the die is cast this week. There is room to debate whether or not action under Article 50 is reversible. But I don't expect a way back to the EU be opened in my lifetime.

I also want you to know that I have deplored the self-interest that has dominated the UK's rhetoric about the European Union since David Cameron announced the Referendum. All we seemed to hear as he tried to negotiate "a reformed EU" was the endlessly-repeated phrase "what's best for Britain". There was never any question about what might be best for Europe as a whole, or how this nation could benefit the EU. When we should have been celebrating the remarkable achievements of the past sixty years and helping to build a consensus about the future not just in this continent but worldwide, the only themes that seemed to matter were the economy, trade and migrants. I could not believe that this once outward-looking nation of ours had become so insular.

It's easy to come out with a long list of "if onlys" this week. It doesn't serve much purpose to say, if only the UK had been truly committed to the European Project in the first place. If only we had thrown ourselves into the EU with enthusiasm! But maybe sharing hopes, dreams and aspirations for a kinder and better world order just isn't the British way. Perhaps the European Union will be better off without this country's historic grudging, foot-dragging attitude to its membership.

We have just celebrated the EU's 60th birthday. Our founding parents (yes, I can still say "our" for the time being) believed that only economic, social, cultural and political cooperation between nations could reconstruct our continent free of the warfare and division that plagued it for so many centuries. As a Christian, I share their belief that the quest for peace and justice comes down to loving your neighbour as yourself. This is why supra-national organisations like the European Union are so essential. There is no future for the world unless we can all commit to looking beyond our national boundaries, not just with fine words but with actions that make a difference.

The EU faces many threats at present. Brexit is just one of them. I hope that the United Kingdom will always be a good neighbour and friend to the European Union, whatever the future holds. I hope that the Brexit negotiations will be amicable and free of bitterness and rancour. I am especially thinking of citizens from EU countries outside Britain who are resident in the UK, and of British citizens living and working in EU countries abroad. You know how anxious they are in the face of an uncertain future.

You can count on us who are "the 48%" to go on trying to be good Europeans. That includes a majority of British young people. They have only ever known a Britain that is part of the EU. Many of them are very angry that their future has been stolen from them by my silver-haired generation. But I am heartened when I hear them talk about politics and the kind of society they want to belong to. They are more articulate than I was at that age. They are all for grasping hold of our destinies as peoples and nations and making a difference. I think we can trust them, one day, to look again at this monumental folly we have bequeathed them, and undo it. When that day comes, I hope the European Union can be generous enough to welcome us back.

With my best wishes and prayers,
Michael Sadgrove

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.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Europeans who Live in Britain. Europeans who Love Britain

Last night I went to a meeting with nationals of other European Union countries who are living in our part of Northumberland. We gathered in a café at Hexham's independent cinema. Others in the room were looking forward to the evening presentation - Hidden Figures, maybe, or Fences. There was the happy atmosphere of expected enjoyment.

But our gathering was not for entertainment. On the night before The Queen was due to sign off the legislation paving the way for Article 50 to be invoked and the Brexit process triggered, this group of fifteen or so was contemplating what their destiny could be after the United Kingdom had left the EU. For as we all know, the UK government has failed to offer any undertakings to non-UK citizens of EU nations about remaining in this country once Brexit is a reality.

In this fascinating, articulate group of people many nationalities are represented: German, Dutch, Polish, Spanish, Greek, French, Swedish and Italian. They had lived in the UK for many years, decades even. Some were retired, some in employment. They were entirely indigenised. Their English was fluent. Their children had known no other life but in Britain. They paid taxes and social security in the UK. They owned property and had put down roots here. Most had long since ceased to feel they belonged anywhere else. Some had all but forgotten what it was like to live elsewhere.

You'll realise why I felt that my presence at this gathering was under somewhat false pretences. I am not facing their anxieties. I don't have to fear for the future of my family's or my own life in Britain. But I do know something about what it means and even how it feels when your future is not secure and you don't feel safe. Regular readers of this blog know that my late mother was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who came to Britain in the late 1930s. Her parents escaped with their lives because they had been taken in and cared for underground in German-occupied Holland. Books of German poetry, 19th century Jewish prayer books, some pieces of china, a seventeenth century map of Edam on in our entrance hall and an old Dutch cupboard in the living room symbolise that story and help keep it alive as it recedes in time from the present.

I'd been invited to attend as a known champion of the EU in Tynedale. A few knew about Christians for Europe which I co-convened during the Referendum campaign (and where a still active Twitter feed @Xians4EU can be viewed if you are not on Twitter yourself). A couple of other people from continental Europe had acquired UK citizenship. But most had not. They had assumed that in a United Kingdom that was an EU member state, there was no need to worry about national citizenship because now, after a terribly destructive war, we were at last Europeans together. Why shouldn't they make that assumption?

I heard a lot that helped me to empathise with the predicament of these good people. "We love Britain. It's our home. We belong here. We've worked here for years. We contribute to its wellbeing. We make a vital contribution to our locality here in Northumberland. We do not want to live anywhere else. We are all Europeans now - or thought we were." In all this, there was a striking lack of bitterness or self-pity. Yes, there was a lot of anxiety, together with puzzlement and hurt that their host country had not offered any undertakings about staying in Britain after Brexit when it could so easily have done so.

Indeed, I think it was the not-knowing that was the worst thing. Some said that British friends and neighbours had tried to reassure them by telling them that they wouldn't have to leave, even if they would have to wait to be told. Nobody said they had experienced hostility from locals; indeed they spoke of the warmth and friendliness of Northumberland people. (As a southerner blown in from London, I could identify with this.) But wonderful though this all is, anyone can see why it isn't enough.

Listening to the members of this group, I couldn't but feel a sense not only of profound sympathy but of shame. Many of them spoke about what it was like to contemplate being treated as "bargaining chips" in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. They believed it would not have cost the UK much to take the generous, moral high ground and offer unconditional undertakings to long-standing European citizens from other countries who have made their home in these islands. They spoke about Britain's famous traditions of welcome to people from overseas (not simply continental Europe of course).

I didn't think I should say too much as a native Brit, but I did want to tell them that many of us, even some Brexiters I'd spoken to, were completely on their side. We understood their fears. We wanted to do all we could to help. And many of us were, I also said, ashamed that our country had treated them so badly, not just because of all they were contributing to the UK but, more basic even than that, because they are our fellow human beings and as the Hebrew Bible says, we have a responsibility to care for the stranger in our midst. Only they aren't strangers any more. They are our friends. And that makes it all the more shaming.

I understand the arguments about UK expats who live in mainland EU countries. A number of them have become friends through our regular visits to France. They too are anxious about their future after Brexit. I sympathise very much with them too, not least with those who have lived long enough outside Britain not to have qualified to vote in the Referendum (a particularly mean attitude on the part of the government, I thought). But two wrongs don't make a right. I believe that if the UK had behaved in a principled way and given the undertakings our fellow-European friends needed, it would have created a more propitious environment within which to negotiate a good Brexit deal. Generosity begets generosity: the other 27 EU nations might just have felt more inclined to behave generously towards Britain as a result.  This country badly needs friends abroad right now. So it would have been an act of enlightened self-interest to say to my conversation-partners last night, "Yes, of course you must stay in Britain. This is your home, and we wouldn't have it any other way".

But we didn't say that, despite the best efforts of some in Parliament. And to that extent, Britain has shown itself to be a less kind, less generous and less fair nation than I thought it was. With less heart, you become less great. This is why I am ashamed. Aren't you?

So I'm going to show solidarity. I'm sure many others will do the same. We must change this situation, and give back to our friends with whom we share this continent, our brothers and sisters, the future they want in our midst and have a right to expect.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Bearing Witness to Europe: a day in Newcastle

Yesterday I got on the train and went to join the North East March for Europe in Newcastle. For a couple of hours I stood with a crowd of several hundred at the Monument in the city-centre. There was a home-spun party atmosphere with banners, flag-waving and singing. I felt a bit underdressed, not sporting the celebratory attire of yellow stars on blue. Even a well-dressed canine looked better suited for the part than I did. But it didn't matter. I was glad to be there.

"Celebratory?" you ask. Hang on, who actually won the EU referendum? No-one was denying the way the vote went. But far from rendering everyone despondent, it seemed to have had the opposite effect. This was a crowd that was energised and enthusiastic, eager to do our best for Britain and Europe, and confident in affirming all that we valued in the EU. Yes, and determined to try to win hearts and minds in the aftermath of the Brexit vote by urging our country to look again at its consequences and prevent lasting damage not only to ourselves but to our European friends and neighbours.

I'd decided to go for two reasons. The first was simply to show solidarity with the millions across the land who voted to remain in the EU. At a time when the momentum of Brexit seems unstoppable, there's a lot to be said for turning out on the streets en masse in order to show our political leaders that they can't assume that Britain has given them an "overwhelming" or even a "clear" mandate to drive us to the cliff-edge. And even if we had, we would still have the right to change our minds as a nation. That's what democracy means.

In the vocabulary of Christian faith, I call this kind of public activity "bearing witness": telling our story, sharing our experience, and inviting others to make it their own and become part of it. Getting out there is to become active rather than passive, not to be a bystander but to do something. And that changes for good the consciousness not only of those who take part but of the many more who watch or listen or read news reports and social media. Becoming participants makes a difference. Maybe a bigger difference than we can know at the time. Standing at the heart of Newcastle, this great cosmopolitan city that voted to remain in the EU, I think we all felt empowered.

The other reason for going was that I wanted to hear the speeches. An impressive line-up of speakers represented the worlds of politics, education, the unions, health, and business and commerce. I don't suppose many of us learned much that was new. But it was the conviction with which they spoke that impressed and even moved me. They were clear that our country had made a disastrous mistake. They were clear that the electorate had been misled and lied to. They were clear that the values of Europeanism were still alive and well across our nation. They were clear that it wasn't too late to row back from our decision. They were clear that the UK still had a future in the EU provided enough people believed in it with conviction.

In their different ways, the speakers underlined a simple message. "We want our country back. We want our continent back too. Being in the EU isn't only about the economy. It's about the values we share. We stand up not only for ourselves but for the next generation. We love Europe. We are Europeans. We shall fight for a second referendum on the negotiated Brexit deal with the option Remain in the EU on the ballot paper."

At the end, Professor A. C. Grayling spoke, one of the most intelligent and ardent champions of Britain's membership of the EU. In a long series of writings and tweets he has mercilessly exposed Brexit for what it is, the non-sense of "this crazy, absurd, damaging project". We must lobby our MPs, he told us. Too many Remainer parliamentarians are going along with Brexit because, as the cry has it, "the people have spoken". This needs challenging by rigorous argument. And maybe our elected representatives who, presumably, haven't stopped believing that EU membership is a good thing need a little encouragement to stand up for that belief. (It's a pity that there were no North East MPs among the speakers - had they been invited and refused, I wonder?) And as for the electorate as a whole, we should raise the morale of despondent Remainers while continuing to challenge those who voted to leave. In other words, the debate is far from concluded. It's more urgent than ever. We need to keep it alive.

It wasn't lost on me that we were gathered at the foot of  a monument that celebrates the great Charles Earl Grey. His fame rests, not on the scented tea named after him but his achievement as a courageous, pioneering, forward-looking politician. He was Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834, and it was under his government that slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire. More than that, he was the principal advocate of the Great Reform Act of 1832 that did so much to ensure the proper representation of the people in Parliament. His memory as a champion of democracy is treasured in his native North East. It's dangerous to claim the great men and women of the past as supporters of present-day causes, but I couldn't help thinking that he would have approved of our act of witness by his monument.

But the name of Grey sounds a warning note too. Someone responded to one of my tweets by pointing out that it was Earl Grey's descendant Sir Edward Grey who famously said in 1914, on the eve of the Great War, that the lights were "going out all over Europe". A few yards away from the monument, a small but noisy group of counter-protesters, some wearing Trump masks, were displaying a large banner that read: "Refugees Not Welcome. We Are Full". A sign that the lights could well go out across Europe if we are not vigilant for democracy, decency and peace-making, for justice, inclusion and equality, all the values that the European vision at its noblest represents. At a time when we do not know what will become of the West in the era of an unpredictable US president, and when Alt-Right movements are springing up across our own continent, we would be wise to be vigilant. And keep our European alliances in good repair.