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.

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Babel, nations and empire builders

 

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_editedAre nations a good thing or a bad thing? After the experience of two centuries of imperial expansion, aggressive wars and genocide, you could be forgiven for thinking that nations are altogether a bad thing. Indeed, in the 2016 Brexit referendum debate, it is the power of the EU to bring nations together that is being put forward as the strongest argument for the importance of internationalism and the dangers of individual nations existing separately. So the argument goes, left to themselves, nations will always fall into conflict driven by fierce nationalism, but coming together in a transnational union will prevent that and is the sign of a mature, forward-looking approach that is on the right side of history. That certainly fits with a secular worldview that believes in the inherent goodness of humanity, but I don’t believe it fits with a biblical understanding of the human condition. Another look at Gen. 10-11 will explain why.

Just as we must read Gen. 1-2 alongside the dramatic intervention of evil in Gen. 3 to get the full understanding of the human condition, so the optimistic picture of nations spreading across the earth in Genesis 10 must be read alongside the sinister events of the Babel narrative in Gen. 11. In fact, we need to notice that there is one chilling intermission in the Table of Nations in Gen. 10:8-11. Continue reading “Babel, nations and empire builders”