How many steps from the political precipice?

cliffs-509915_1920Who would be an MP this week? The pressures on Parliament are colossal, the consequences of their decision unknown, party loyalties are breaking down, the government whip is in tatters, the Speaker is making decisions on the hoof. Journalists seem to be struggling to know how to report it (except for the exceptional Brexitcast), which means the public cannot comprehend what is going on. Are we in similar territory to 1940 (the final 15 minutes of the film Darkest Hour make interesting viewing in this context), or is this more 1974, or perhaps 1931? It is certainly in the same league as these other seismic moments in British politics. The tectonic plates are shifting. No one knows who will be left standing after the shocks subside.

In the context of all this noise, a decision has to be made. Is it betraying the wishes of the British people to pass Mrs May’s agreement? It is a convoluted ‘dog’s Brexit’ of a deal. The backstop is a nightmare if we end up in it, and it will require the EU to demonstrate a great deal of good will if it is not to cause uproar in British politics. We could be tied into a customs arrangement that could run for years, while goods made in Northern Ireland will carry a UK(NI) label, effectively differentiating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland would be more closely tied to the EU than the rest of the UK under the backstop, a situation that might be tolerated as a necessity for a year, but could have untold consequences in the venomous politics of Northern Ireland. Many see this all as a ploy to tie the UK to the EU long enough for a remain-friendly government to come along and lead us back in, in which scenario we would then have to sign up to the Euro and Schengen, and a bigger budget contribution. The Withdrawal Agreement has a lot to be said against it.

On the other hand, it is only the Withdrawal Agreement. This often gets forgotten, but it is not our long-term relationship with the EU. It could cease to apply as soon as January 2021, if both sides get on with negotiating the long-term relationship. The Withdrawal Agreement contains some good measures, such as the rights of EU and UK citizens to residency, how the jurisdiction of the ECJ comes to an end in the UK, how we leave Euratom and the European Investment Bank, and so on. If we throw these achievements away, think of the attrition this would cause in UK/EU relations. Above all, by voting it down by two catastrophic margins, the UK has registered in no uncertain terms that it is a bad deal, but if no-deal is not available we have to hold our noses and go for it. Our only hope of a no-deal is that some EU state (Lithuania?) or the EU Parliament might yet veto the deal and reject any article 50 extension, in which case no-deal comes back into play. On balance, I think this deal is better than no Brexit, and if no-deal is not available, MPs should vote it through.

That leaves us some much bigger questions to ponder. First, how on earth did we end up in this crouch? The way the UK has handled these negotiations has been dreadful. We should never have submitted to the EU timetable that delayed the meat of the agreement until we had sorted the bill, citizens’ rights and the Irish border. We should have insisted on what everyone knows, that if DPD can deliver a parcel to my door that I can track on the internet, then the technology exists to operate an open border in Ireland (and indeed in Dover) without border guards and fences. This is something the European Parliament admitted long ago.

The whole process of leaving the EU is laughably complicated and stupid. After two years of talks, all we have agreed is a Withdrawal Agreement, a document long on white space and rich in putting the obvious into legalese. We have not even started talks on the trade deal that will make the backstop obsolete! Why on earth not? What could possibly have been wrong with several parallel tracks of talks to agree each area? The trade agreement talks might even have finished first, and all this misery could be over. And remember, this was all new territory for the EU, so there was no precedent to follow, no established way of working, not even ‘the sketch of a plan’ before we voted leave. It was all cooked up after the referendum to be as awkward and possible, in the hope that we might change our minds and come running back, maybe holding that second referendum as the Irish did. Indeed, in less politically correct times we might have said that the whole process was ‘all a bit Irish’, because Ireland gained a prominence and leverage that was all too convenient.

Another problem has been Mrs May’s Messiah complex. She has concentrated the process in No 10, bypassing David Davis and his successors. I wonder why. Is it because she finds it hard to entrust the hard work to others? She must be the one who brings home the deal. She has some striking similarities with American President Woodrow Wilson. He came back from the peace conference in Versailles in 1919, convinced that Congress should pass it into law. He saw himself as the architect of a great peace and that the treaty was the work of ‘the hand of God’, even though it divided the spoils among the European victors’ empires rather than pursuing his ideal of self-determination. But Congress rejected Wilson’s treaty, perhaps because he had never kept channels open with them through the whole process of negotiation. What he achieved in Europe died in Congress. Had he carried Congress with him, the peace deal might have been fairer, and World War Two might have been avoided. The parallels should not be pressed too closely with Mrs May, but she does have only herself to blame for failing to involve the UK Parliament, and the devolved assemblies, in her process. Had she allowed them to have key indicative votes throughout the process, the EU would have known what would fly and what would sink. Instead, she has allowed us to look divided and shambolic, while a clique of Brussels bureaucrats hold the trump cards and smile to themselves. Even now, on the third ‘meaningful vote’, we could strengthen Mrs May’s hand by sending the WA back to the Brussels summit with an explicit amendment: if the backstop is to last longer than a year, the UK and EU Parliaments must be able to vote to approve any extension, and for a fixed term of a year at a time.* Send that into the Brussels summit on Thursday, and Parliament has strengthened her hand. Let the EU leaders respect Parliamentary government.

Does that risk No-deal? Maybe, though the EU hates the idea. We are prepared and stand to gain a great deal. There has been so much talk of the no-deal ‘cliff-edge’, though whenever I have heard a politician say that, the interviewers never ask them to specify what that cliff-edge entails or what exactly we have to fear. No one spells it out, because I suspect we will trade with the EU much as we trade with China, India and Brazil – successfully!

However, there is another Brexit precipice that really scares me – the political precipice of no Brexit. Last week I heard an interview with Iain Duncan-Smith by Peter Hennessey. As the polls were about to close on Referendum Day, Duncan-Smith had given up hope of winning, when he called his election agent in Chingford. He told him that on the council estates people were queuing to get into the polling stations. People were being introduced to a polling booth who had never voted before. It was the first indication of a political earthquake. If we pass this off as ‘a freak snapshot of public opinion’ (as some remainers have), I am concerned about what people will do. This plays into the hands of extremists, and there are some horrible political alternatives out there. People give in to racism when they think they have been ignored. I will never vote for a racist party ever. I wish I could be as confident of the public as a whole. If you look at the steps that took Spain into civil war in the 1930s, or Northern Ireland into the troubles in the late 1960s, we are not that many steps from an equivalent danger. The fabric of our political life is close to threadbare. At a time when we should be charting a course for a post-Brexit future where we can shape our own industrial, employment, agriculture, fisheries and most of all trade policies, we lack any real leaders. Pushing continued membership of the EU will play into that leadership vacuum, and I fear that might precipitate some people into desperate political alternatives. May God spare us from such a catastrophe.

*Addendum. 18/03.19 18:15. In the light of Mr Speaker Bercow’s ruling that a meaningful vote must be different from previous motions to be permitted by the Speaker, this amendment might be a way out of its ever deeper bind for the Government. 

Image by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay

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In Brussels and Strasbourg – a Brexiteer on holiday

IMG_20180728_151138In any disagreement, it is good advice to go and step into the other person’s shoes. Our summer holiday provided the perfect opportunity, as we based ourselves first near Brussels and then in the Nord Vosges west of Strasbourg. We’ve had more holidays in Eastern France and the Low counties than anywhere else, because we love the culture and history of each nation, as well as the manifest beauty of each landscape. Yet I am convinced that Brexit is right for the UK, and increasingly sure that something similar would be good for many EU countries. But have I missed something? Why do dedicated Europhiles love the EU? Seeing things from the perspective of the heart of the EU might be helpful.

When you visit the Parliamentarium in Brussels, the visitor centre at the EU Parliament, you can have the whole raison d’etre of the EU explained to you. The EU exists because of Europe’s history. It is a fear of the past that drives the determination to integrate into an ever closer union. Set into the wall in a darkened room in the exhibition, screen after screen narrates the sad story of early 20th century carnage. Europe was laid waste by war, and only in the ruins of the late 1940s did a new Europe begin to be fashioned.

It is important to realise that for continental Europeans this experience goes much further back, to Napoleon and beyond. While Britain played a major part in defeating Corsica’s most famous son, we kept out of the conflicts that followed, particularly the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, because we were too busy fighting colonial wars elsewhere and were more concerned to extend our expanding empire. For the French, their war with Prussia was yet another bloodletting between neighbours, so dreadful that when it was over they commissioned a great monument to the fallen, the basilica in Paris known as La Sacré Coeur. It was completed in 1914! The killing fields of the Western Front in WW1, in which my Gt. Uncle died, another Gt. Uncle was wounded and my Grandfather also served, were yet worse for the French, especially on battlefields such as Verdun in the centre of France. In January 1918 President Woodrow Wilson made a speech setting out a new doctrine in international relations, his ‘fourteen points’ that established the principle of national self-determination. When the armistice was signed in November 1918, this let loose a wave of nationalism. The old empires of Europe – Russia, Germany and Austria Hungary – gave up territory to make way for new states such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and Poland re-emerged. Empires were to be a thing of the past, at least for the vanquished.

What Wilson had not reckoned with was the growth of National Socialism, in Germany, Italy, and Spain, and the success of Bolshevism in the Soviet Union. All these countries practiced a cult of religious nationalism, idolising their leaders and their nations with rituals and parades that seem utterly absurd to us now, but which people obviously believed at the time. When such nationalism had laid Europe waste again, in a total war that killed civilians as deliberately as it killed soldiers, there was a new consensus to build something bold and new.  The Parliamentarium exhibition is filled with quotes from the founding era of the European movement, and it is fascinating to see how they explain themselves. One that struck my notice was the Geneva Draft Declaration (II) on European Federation:

‘During the lifetime of one generation Europe has twice been the centre of a world conflict whose chief cause was the existence of thirty sovereign states in Europe. It is a most urgent task to end this international anarchy by creating a European Federal Union.’

Two world wars were blamed on the existence of ‘sovereign states’ across Europe! Independence and national sovereignty must always lead to war – a claim no doubt challenged by countries like Sweden and Switzerland. For a more recent voice expressing the same view, turn to Liliane Maury Pasquier, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.[1] She said:

‘As an organisation that brings together almost all European states on the basis of common values, principles and legal standards, the Council of Europe is today best placed to help meet the challenges raised by growing nationalism and avoid the building of new walls….upholding multilateralism as an essential weapon against sovereigntist attacks on our shared values.’

Do you see the same idea being expressed? The problem with Europe is ‘sovereigntism’ and ‘nationalism’ as the inevitable causes of war, while the only way to break that is to achieve what the EU calls ‘ever closer union.’ Indeed, the European Parliament’s other new and grander home in Strasbourg is built to look like a work still in progress, its circular walls intentionally unfinished to convey the idea of a single Europe still being constructed. There is in the EU psyche a genuine conviction that they are the only means by which Europe can be spared again from another appalling war. For that reason, they see Brexit as potentially unleashing the dogs of war. If it can be frustrated, and if necessary governments that support it can be destabilised so that the British change their mind, the European project can continue on its way.

Yet I believe that the European Union is fast becoming the most likely cause of another war in Europe. The EU is becoming an empire, concentrating power at the unaccountable centre, fighting to protect its own interests, bending its own principles to ensure that it stays together at all costs. This way of going on is nothing new. It was how every empire operated, and alienated and oppressed those it dominated until they rose up against it. It happened with Napoleon’s France, and in the British, Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian empires, and you can see the new empires of the US, China and America learning the same character traits.

Wars are caused when empires and nationalisms collide. Both are evil. The view I seek to express on this blog is that the biblical understanding of nationhood avoids both extremes, and seeks to plough a third way, the way God intended us to live. Nations are to live together peacefully, side by side, each rejoicing in its own national conversation, cherishing its own language, culture and history, but also rejoicing in the culture, language and history of its neighbours and relating to them peacefully and generously. Each nation should be humble enough not to think of itself more highly than it ought to think. It ought to recognise that national borders are porous, not least because of marriage and migration, and thus every nation is always in a rich process of change and development. When a nation idolises itself, it always ends up hating and distrusting its neighbours. When a nation thinks so much of itself that it feels the urge to dominate all other nations around it, it has started to form an empire, which can only be achieved or maintained by oppression.  There is a close connection between nationalism and empire. One often leads to the other.

Empires caused the First World War. Woodrow Wilson saw national self-determination as the antidote to empire, thereby giving rise to nationalism, and the kind of self-obsessed idolatrous nations (Nazi and Bolshevik) that went out to build new empires by aggressive force. Empire will never be the antidote to nationalism, because idolatrous nationalism always leads to empire, given the opportunity.

At the centre of the carnage of too many European wars sits the city of Strasbourg, a city in France that sits next to the Rhine, and whose tram system crosses over into Germany. It has changed hands several times, and as a visitor one is not quite sure whether it is German or French. Staff who can tell you are not French may greet you in German then be confused to find that you are British. It is entirely understandable that the people of Strasbourg and Alsace never want to see war again. But what can keep them, and all Europe, from war? Two independent nations, humbled by the follies of the past, ought to be able to live alongside one another without ambitions that lead to war. Instead, I fear that an empire with its Parliament in Strasbourg will only serve over time to make other nations hate the place.

There are several aspects of the EU that already have the hallmarks of an empire. The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg can override national legislators and tell them to think again, thereby challenging the will of the people. The rules of the Eurozone were bent to get Italy and Greece into the Eurozone, and then when it proved unsustainable, everything had to bow to the survival of the Euro, even if that meant bringing down elected governments in Athens and Rome. The Schengen treaty is also seen as essential to European unity, even when a migration crisis makes such open borders seriously questionable. The EU is also good at colonising institutions that operated quite happily without it. The European Space Agency existed separate from the EU for many years, and has member states who are not EU members, such as Switzerland and Norway, as well as relationships with Canada and Israel. For years ESA operated free from EU interference, but since 2004 the EU has been taking a closer involvement in the running of ESA, and would like it to be considered an agency of the EU. Not only that, the EU Commission is determined to prevent the UK using ESA’s Galileo GPS satellite system post-Brexit, even though the UK has chipped in £1.4bn. What this means is that the EU has colonised another institution, and is determined to push out member states that will not toe their line. Imagine what it would be like if the EU created a European army, thereby undermining the cohesion of NATO.

I understand the fear of another European total war, and why people would be motivated to pursue any grands projets to try and prevent it. However, the answer is not another European empire. Empires have done as much if not more damage in Europe that nationalism. Neither will keep the peace of Europe. There are plenty of other ways for independent sovereign nations to cooperate together peacefully without surrendering their sovereignty, and so to live together on this war-scarred continent with humility and respect.

[1] Don’t confuse the Council of Europe with the European Union. The Council of Europe is a gathering of MPs from the national parliaments of 47 European states, as a ‘pan-European forum for inter-Parliamentary dialogue’, which keeps a focus on human rights through the European Court of Human Rights and is not part of the EU. It meets in the old EU parliament building in Strasbourg.

‘We’re all doomed’ – understanding British pessimism

danger-851895_1920Pessimism is an essential element of British culture. This fact is realised by all nations on earth except the British themselves. We actually believe our own pessimism with such inevitable gullibility that we rarely notice when things turn out differently. After all, we invented the weather forecast and the shipping news. It could so easily be Britain that Salman Rushdie had in mind when he described a sad and forgetful city in Haroon and the sea of stories:

In the north of the sad city stood mighty factories in which (so I’m told) sadness was actually manufactured, packaged and sent all over the world, which never seemed to get enough of it. Black smoke poured out of the sadness factories and hung over the city like bad news.

We are beset by gloom at the moment. We emerge slowly from the dark of winter, only to be assaulted by a beastly storm (blamed on the Russians!), and switch on the news to hear yet more Brexit woe. It is all going to turn out bad. The economy is going to tank. As soon as we leave we will ‘fall off a cliff’, jobs will be lost in their millions because our goods will no longer have any kind of access to vital EU markets at all, Dover and Felixstowe harbours will be filled in with concrete, and a wall that will be the envy of Donald Trump will be built along the Irish border. Meanwhile, millions of Poles and Romanians will flee immediately, leaving our care homes and hospitals entirely unstaffed. And we will be paying the bill to the EU forever, and it will turn out to be much bigger than we ever agreed to. ‘We’re all doomed.’ It is all too dreadful to contemplate.

Before this all gets too much, allow me to review some projects of the recent past that had the misfortune to be enveloped by this British cloud of pessimism. Let’s start with Heathrow Terminal 5. Continue reading “‘We’re all doomed’ – understanding British pessimism”

‘Brexit means Brexit’ – 10 Brexit slogans I’ve come to loathe.

slide1Six frenzied months have passed since Britain voted to leave the European Union. Politics is interesting again. All of a sudden it is hard to find anyone who doesn’t care about politics. For a second time we have a strong-minded woman Prime Minister, stirring many memories. However, unlike the 1980s, we are still living in the age of spin. The political class think that everything has to be reduced to a slogan that will somehow stick in our apparently simple minds. So the press oppress us by refusing to stock nuance, or supply detail, or honour our intelligence with a decent debate, because we are told that there is no demand for anything other than meaningless slogans.

So, let’s take some Brexit slogans in turn and unpack them to get a little nearer to reality.

‘Brexit means Brexit’. This is the silliest slogan of all. Imagine trying to explain anything else in the same way: ‘Marriage means marriage’, ‘Cricket means cricket’, or ‘Fruit cake means fruit cake.’ At least when you shout ‘Points mean prizes’ there is a connection between two different but related words. But since Brexit is an invented word to describe a process that has never happened before and has yet to happen, I’m sorry Prime Minister but this catchphrase does nothing. Nor are things clarified by some engaging adjective. A Hard Brexit sounds painfully surgical, a Soft Brexit fluffy and pillowed from all ills; then there is a Grey Brexit (presumably loved by John Major, though I doubt it) and even a Red, White and Blue Brexit (could also work for the French and the Dutch) though by now this is just getting silly. The politicians should admit they are patronising us because they don’t want to discuss detail in public.

‘A hard Brexit was not on the ballot paper.’ This was claimed by Lib Dem leader Tim Farron MP. What does he mean? Well, a ‘hard Brexit’ (I think) means leaving the EU completely, including the customs union that allows tariff-free trade between EU countries, as well as ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over the UK. We would be out of the Single Market and its regulation of British business and finance. Agriculture and fisheries policy would be ours to decide. A ‘soft Brexit’ means paying to be part of the customs union, continuing to charge the common external tariff on goods imported from outside the EU, sticking with Single Market regulations, and in some way remaining under the European Court of Justice. The problem is, the ballot paper was quite simple. It was a binary choice: ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. In the debates on TV, and conversations on the ground, the ‘hard’ options were what we were being offered, and the public voted to leave. We knew there were serious consequences. We knew it was a step into the unknown, and it might hurt our economy, but we voted to leave. Leaving can’t add up to a grey remain.  Continue reading “‘Brexit means Brexit’ – 10 Brexit slogans I’ve come to loathe.”

Europe – now is the time for mission

DSCF1040.JPGSomeone suggested on Twitter that if it keeps going on like this, Britain will die of news! In three weeks we have witnessed a political earthquake: a solid-looking, confident Prime Minister stepping down the next day, the Machiavellian drama of Boris and Gove, the advent of our second woman Prime Minister, an opposition in crisis, the Iraq Inquiry report, and, let’s not forget, the murder of a keen, new MP on the streets of her constituency one lunchtime. Our mundane national life has suddenly run amuck. We are in shock. This is all real. The earth has moved beneath our feet. We need to recover a new normal. But before we do, can I ask you to look beyond Britain’s rather engaging national conversation, to a bigger and pressing context. When we have left the EU, we will still be part of the continent of Europe. Brexit will be the leaving of a European transnational institution. It should not mean that as Christians we turn our backs on the nations of Europe. On the contrary, because of current events, this is the time for mission among the nations of Europe. Let me explain why I think that, and then set out some priorities for cross-cultural mission in Europe.

The crumbling of idolatries

When life is settled, gospel progress can be slow. People are reluctant to consider change, and they settle into the comforts of a now-centred life, focussing on career, possessions and self. But God uses events to shake the nations to their foundations (Hag. 2:7; Heb. 12:26-29), and I believe that that is happening right now. What I find most striking post-Referendum is the shock of the pro-EU lobby, whether that be the liberal secular elite in Britain’s political parties, the British media, our Universities and the City of London, or their cousins in capital cities across Europe. Their prevailing narrative has crashed Continue reading “Europe – now is the time for mission”

Would Brexit be bad for mission in Europe?

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[26/06/16 Please note, these are my own personal views, and do not as such represent the views of Grace Baptist Mission.]

There have been a number of posts in recent days saying that the best motivation for voting #Remain on Thursday is to see the work of the gospel advance in Europe. I am startled that almost all those Christian Remainers blogging have made this highly pragmatic argument the deal-breaker in making their decision. Will Brexit be bad for mission in Europe? Well, let’s think carefully here.

The mission agency I work for has been helping support missionaries in Europe for 50 years. We sent missionaries into Spain when Franco was in power, into Belgium and France before we entered the EEC (as it was then) and long before free movement was introduced. We sent missionaries into Austria and Latvia a decade before either of those countries joined the EU. No one had their visas refused. One missionary did get arrested, but that was in Franco’s Spain in the early 1970s. We thought it was normal for missionaries to have to apply to get a visa before entering, as they do in Peru, Kenya and the Philippines. Governments have the right to control their immigration, and as Christians we play by the rules.

Then along came free movement in the EU under the Maastricht Treaty, and UK missionaries were spared the tedium of the visa queue. But don’t think that that means you are free from all bureaucracy. In France, missionaries needed to get a Carte de Sejours into the late 1990s, and if today you want to serve in Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria or Romania for more than 90 days, you need a residency permit. Continue reading “Would Brexit be bad for mission in Europe?”

Brexit – return to God’s plan for nations

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‘Jim, the way the British are debating the European Union is shallow and non-biblical’, said my Italian friend. ‘You are just talking about the economy, and how Brexit will affect jobs, and it’s very shallow and disappointing.’ I am not quoting him verbatim here, but that was the sense of what he said. That criticism has motivated me to start this blog. Whether the principles I am blogging here meet with his approval, I have no idea. But he was right to challenge us to think more deeply. So, having set out in previous posts the principles of a biblical understanding of nationhood, and the dangers of race-hatred and idolatrous nationalism, in this post I want to come to the big question: how do we evaluate the European Union in the light of such biblical principles?

First let me rule something out. I do not believe that the EU is the woman wearing a crown of twelve stars (like the EU flag?) on her head in Rev 12:1. That is unquestionably the church, not some evil empire, and need not distract us. The descriptions of Babylon in Rev. 17-18 have attracted more attention. Is the EU the great whore of Babylon? The characters of the vision in Rev. 17 are difficult to identify, and across the centuries Babylon has variously been identified with the Roman Empire (by the early church), the Roman Catholic Church (by the Reformers), and more modern empires in Europe by more recent interpreters. I think we should read this vision in more broadly typical terms, with Babylon as the personification of evil and rebellion against God in all its manifestations. If you are a North Korean Christian, you won’t be much worried by the EU, and likewise Zimbabwean Christians may see other regimes reflected in Rev. 17-18. It’s good to ask yourself how Christians around the world read such visions before we rush to judgement.

However, when we turn to Genesis, the history worked out in Gen. 10-11 gives us material that is clear, much less disputed, and I think can be applied to the decision we face. The EU is not the whore of Babylon, but it does manifest some characteristics of the Babel project that should alarm us.  Continue reading “Brexit – return to God’s plan for nations”