I love Europe, but I despair of the EU

Henry Porter

When the European Court of Human Rights announces a ban on crucifixes in Italian schools, you can either celebrate the liberal march of secularism or deplore the illiberal attack on religious expression and national tradition.

Perhaps there is a third option which is to say that this has nothing to do with rights and everything to do with the EU's manic drive to standardise behaviour and attitudes, in the same way as it regulates the transportation of livestock and the safety specifications of new mowers.

The crucifix is none of the EU's business and, as we celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall this weekend and the miraculous bravery and persistence of the Christian congregation of the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, who sparked the East German revolutions with candles and peace prayers every Monday evening, it is perhaps right to remember that the last Europeans to ban the display of religious symbolism in schools belonged to the communist regimes of the east.

Twenty years later, a European institution is busily enforcing secularism on the grounds that some kid belonging to a busybody Finnish-born atheist in northern Italy might have been momentarily put off his or her lessons, which I seriously doubt. It is enough to make you a Eurosceptic, but there again, Euroscepticism seems to me to be the only responsible stance of an intelligent democrat now that the Lisbon treaty is finally ratified. Scepticism is not reflex hostility, but, rather, alertness that assesses each new office, every new shadowy committee or opaque directive and asks: "Is this right for our society?"

The sceptic does not follow dreams or "lightly surrender a known good for unknown better". That phrase comes from the Conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, but I stress that scepticism is not being a little England Tory or any of the other nonsense spouted by French Euro-enthusiasts last week; it is sounding a note of caution, reserving judgment and not being carried away by ideas and political structures which may not be in the interests of the common good. Scepticism suggests that EU institutions are just as capable of waste and failure as national institutions are, that their very remoteness from everyday life means that these faults may go undetected until too late.

As a Europe enthusiast, I cannot imagine the United Kingdom leaving the Union. Britain and, more particularly, England would descend into the sort of morbid defensive solipsism that Dr Kim Howells seems to be advocating in his strategy for withdrawing from Afghanistan and defending the homeland. His combination of nationalism and statism makes the flesh crawl.

Yet, equally, it is important to say that when Europe's leaders meet tomorrow in Berlin to celebrate the end of exactly that combination in East Germany, it seems unworthy of the occasion to use it as an opportunity to appoint a president of Europe. Whether it is Blair or some harmless fellow with a double-barrelled Christian name doesn't actually matter; the point is that the coronation will take place without the involvement of the people at the very moment when Europe marks the most significant and peaceful revolution in history.

Boiled down, the demonstrations that started in Leipzig and spread to Dresden, Karl-Marx-Stadt, Potsdam, Halle and finally Berlin were an assertion of the people's existence, of their need to be acknowledged, respected and consulted. "We are the people," they shouted through that autumn.

It was history's finest day, says Timothy Garton-Ash. Indeed. Anyone who was there will remember the extraordinary expressions on the faces of the East Germans as they walked through Checkpoint Charlie or across the Glienicke Bridge for the first time. There was a radiance in the air that weekend that made everything seem possible and it is that which is being unconsciously sullied in the backroom deal to make an unelected president.

Events in the last 20 years were bound not to live up to the promise of that moment. How could they? But it's worth recognising that we lost an opportunity to build a Europe that doesn't simply rely on material satisfaction and economic growth to legitimise its institutions. The purest form of Euroscepticism holds that it is not enough to create a huge consumerist union at the same time as quietly removing the symbols of spiritual life from classrooms. Real Euroscepticism may suggest that it is a good idea firstly to examine the values that propel the European Union and second to concentrate on what we are building and ways of making those institutions much more transparent and responsive.

The anniversary is the right moment to ask if we really know what's going on in Europe. For instance, how many have heard of the standing committee created by the Lisbon treaty that will set up the EU's first co-ordinated security policy, the plans for surveillance on a massive scale, the use of systems know as Adabts (automatic detection of abnormal behaviour and threats in crowded spaces) and sharing between DNA databases? What about EU plans to track every vehicle that plainly could be used to monitor an individual's movements? I wonder how they might have been deployed on the autobahns of the East.

Twenty years ago I travelled from west to east and watched the Wall fall. This week, I am making a similar trip, but to Prague instead of Berlin, to attend the celebrations to mark the beginning of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. More particularly, I want to pay homage to the man who was released from jail and became president, Vaclav Havel, because on 1 January 1990 he made a speech, which I quote whenever I can.

In it, he said that all governments, even totalitarian regimes, are the people's responsibility. "We are all – though naturally to differing extents – responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery. None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators. Let us not be mistaken: the best government in the world, the best parliament and the best president, cannot achieve much on their own. Freedom and democracy include participation, and therefore responsibility, from us all." That's an enlightened sceptic speaking, one who is worth listening to on this anniversary.

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Source: http://www.henry-porter.com/Articles/I-love-Europe-but-I-despair-of-the-EU.html
Illustration: http://c.photoshelter.com/img-get/I00008UAg3sUm5zU/s/500 [image © Philip Wolmuth]
This article has generously been brought to our attention by Sarah Meyer of INDEX RESEARCH.


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