‘SO FAR, SO GOOD!’ SAID THE OPTIMIST as he hurtled towards earth after jumping out of the aeroplane without a parachute.
‘So far, so good!’ say the optimists as the proposed EU constitution hurtles towards the French and Dutch referenda … with diminishing prospects for a soft landing.
This week promises to be crucial in the two-year process of approving the draft constitution. So far, indeed, everything has gone according to plan. First Lithuania, then Hungary, followed by Italy, Slovenia, Greece, Slovakia and Spain, all voted ¬¥thumbs up¬¥. The Nationalrat of Austria and Germany¬¥s Bundesdag approved the draft just a few days ago. Their respective Bundesraten are expected to follow suit this week. Belgium¬¥s upper and lower houses have also voted yes, and the regional parliaments are expected to comply later this year.
But looming up fast now are the referenda in France (binding) and Holland (consultative), where the public and the politicians are embroiled in heated debate. Never perhaps has ‘Europe’ roused such emotions. A resounding Dutch NEE, currently predicted by the polls, would be a major setback for the European process. But a French NON would even be more serious. A rejection from these two founding EU nations would throw a giant spanner in the works. The next few days could have far-reaching consequences for the whole process.
The healthy side of the debate is that there is a debate. People are at last thinking about the subject.
But how confusing and complicated the issue is!! Personally I have tried to keep up to date with the debate. I have led a discussion evening in the vain hope of producing some clear conclusions. I have waded through the small print of many of the 448 articles. My office has been strewn with newspaper articles from various sources. I have downloaded websites from varous political parties and EU department. I have followed with great interest some of the debates on Dutch television. And driving on the motorway last week, I listened to the debate in Westminster on Britain¬¥s Radio 4, prompted by a possible French ¬¥no¬¥.
What then is the Christian view on the proposed constitution? Well, that depends on which Christian you ask. There is no specific ¬¥Christian¬¥ view.
Debates and discussions between believers from almost the whole political spectrum present arguments both for and against. And for all sorts of reasons. Extreme rhetoric can be heard from both sides: ¬¥A NO vote is a vote for war¬¥; ¬¥A YES vote is a vote for a superstate, warned against in Revelation.¬¥
To be honest, I¬¥ve been strongly tempted to vote ¬¥no¬¥ in recent days simply in reaction to the arrogance and clumsiness of some of the Dutch politicians. And I suspect that has contributed significantly to the negative climate in Holland. But how responsible would that really be?
The problem is, what would a ¬¥no¬¥ vote mean? Both right and left extremes in France are voting against, for opposite reasons. In Holland, a leading national magazine urged readers to vote no to give the government a stronger position to negotiate an exception to the immigration policy. But how on earth does the government or the EU know that your ¬¥no¬¥ vote was for that reason? Voting ¬¥no¬¥ does not send a clear message at all.
Many Christians plan to vote ¬¥no¬¥ as protest that God is not mentioned in the preamble. But how will any government know that is why they voted against? Will that help to get a better constitution? Besides, of all the 25 EU nations, only three have constitutions mentioning the name of God. When have we been upset about that too? I personally wish God was mentioned. To leave God out is to omit the very concept that made Europe ¬¥Europe¬¥ in the first place! The lack of specific mention of the Christian heritage of Europe also does violence to history, in my understanding. For many centuries, Europe was Christendom and Christendom was Europe.
But these shortcomings need to evaluated in the context of the whole document. Various church councils and conferences of bishops have also expressed their disappointment that God and the Christian heritage are not mentioned. But they take courage at the unprecedented and specific provision in the constitution for ongoing dialogue between the EU and the churches.
Others see promise in the ¬¥citizens¬¥ initative¬¥ clause (I/47, art.4), which obliges the Commission to consider any petition signed by over one million citizens from a ¬¥significant number of member states¬¥. However the proposer of this article, Professor Joseph Weiler, is himself disappointed with the limited clout of the final version, and considers it ¬¥nothing to get excited about¬¥. It guarantees nothing.
So how then do I plan to vote? Should I vote at all? As Christians, we generally affirm our responsibility to engage in the democratic process and exercise our duty to vote. However, many of us feel way out of our depth. It would be fair for us to conclude that it has been unfair for the politicians to hand us such a complicated and confusing choice. We may choose therefore not to vote, and say that politicians should handle this sort of issue themselves. That has in fact been the process in most of the countries so far.
But, yes, I am going to vote. And I¬¥m going to vote ¬¥yes¬¥. And here¬¥s why.
Firstly, I don¬¥t expect a perfect constitution. Debate is the essence of democracy. And this constitution has already gone through a long, open and transparent process involving the elected representatives of 25 nations, people who understand political processes better than I, with submissions from all sorts of interest groups, including the Conference of European Churches and the European Evangelical Alliance. I have to accept that consensus in the European context will involve some compromise. Despite the shortcomings, many of the concepts embodied in this document have specific Biblical origins – solidarity, subsidiarity and human rights, just to name three. We don¬¥t have space to spell this out further here.
Secondly, as a Christian my starting point is not, what is best for my country? Christians of all people should be able to rise above nationalism and look at the bigger picture. But that is something non-Catholic believers have found generally difficult to do. We tend to think with a territorial mentality, shaped by the idea of national churches. My own involvement in Eastern Europe, in Poland, The Ukraine, Romania, and as far east as Georgia and Armenia, and, yes, even in Turkey, has made me aware how much hope the values of ¬¥Europe¬¥ give to those emerging from years under communistic or other restrictive regimes. I¬¥m afraid that much of the argumentation I have heard against the constitution is too narrow and nationalistic.
Thirdly, I¬¥m embarrassed by Europe¬¥s failure to act decisively and unitedly on the world stage. Voting ¬¥yes¬¥ for the constitution is not going to change that overnight, I admit, but we must take steps to think and act more European. We have reached a phase in history where we have to rethink the nation-state. The nation-state is not a God-given, biblical concept. It is a relatively modern concept. When ¬¥nation¬¥ is mentioned in the Bible, it refers to a people group, not a political entity. There was a time when England was divided into many kingdoms, often warring with each other. Castles near where I live in Holland remind me of when the duke of this province would fight with the duke of that one. Less than two centuries ago Germany was divided into many small principalities.
Thank God we are past all that. Thank God too for the 60 years of peace that growing unity between Europe¬¥s nations has fostered. Now we have reached a new stage where smaller units merge into larger. I hope more nations will join this growing unity in the future. This is a unique experiment
promoting unity with diversi
ty, a concept that reflects the very basic nature of reality: the Trinity.
I still have questions, reservations and concerns about the constitution, and the future it suggests for Europe. But when I look back over 55 years to the bold initiative of the European Coal and Steel Community by Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer, both consciously inspired by Christian values, my trust in the God who still shapes history is not diminished.
Even if we are in for some ‘hard landings’ in the coming days.
Till next week,