Dr Helen Szamuely
Of all the many disagreements about the text of the EU Constitution, discussed last week and yesterday (Monday, May 24) by the Foreign Ministers and to be presented to the Summit in Dublin on June 17, the most extraordinary concerns God. What started off as a small complaint by one or two countries has turned into a full-throated chorus. No fewer than seven member states - Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – sent a letter to the Irish Presidency demanding that there should be a reference to Christianity in the Constitution. Spain has decided to abandon that particular cause. What these countries want to do is, if one may put it that way, beef up the rather wishy-washy preamble to the Constitution, which refers to the "cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe". Well, you can see their point.
There are clearly problems with the whole issue. In the first place, religion should have no place in a political constitution, whose main aim should be a clear designation and limitation of powers exercised by the body in question, in this case undoubtedly a state, and by its various organs.
Secondly, there is Turkey. Its government is already furious with what it sees as a relentless dragging out of the accession process. The inclusion of Christianity in the Constitution would quite clearly mean that Turkey could never become a member state. That may be quite a good idea from their point of view but, if that is what the EU has in mind that it should say so openly and create some kind of alternative structures for dealing with a near neighbour who is also an important ally.
The whole argument opens up the deep fissures in Europe, calls attention to centuries’ old conflicts and undermines the whole notion of there being one set of European values. Or, rather, reminds us all that those European values are not all about sweetness and light
Most importantly, however, the whole argument opens up the deep fissures in Europe, calls attention to centuries’ old conflicts and undermines the whole notion of there being one set of European values. Or, rather, reminds us all that those European values are not all about sweetness and light, though they are, frequently about swashbuckling curiosity and advancement in political, social, economic and intellectual matters – all of which is alien to the European Union with its prattle about European values.
The great dividing lines in post-Classical European history have been religious. At present, only one of the EU member states is Eastern Orthodox (as well as a former part of the Ottoman Empire), Greece, but certain problems in outlook have already been apparent. There is a secondary dividing line and that is between Catholic and Protestant countries. Fortunately, in most parts of Europe, the various denominations have learned to live in peace (nothing to do with the European Union and everything with historical and economic development) but some attitudes remain different. It is noticeable that all the countries who are looking for an inclusion of Christianity in the constitution are largely Catholic. For various historical reasons, the largely Protestant countries are shying away from the idea.
For several of the signatories their Catholic identity has been an aid in fight against both Nazism and Communism. They see it as a positive and enlightened attitude that needs to be emphasised and celebrated. They are also worried that if the Church and the faith are no longer directly under attack, they might succumb to modern secularism.
Some Catholic countries are not too keen either. Ireland, as the current President, is not anxious to rock the boat even more. We shall see whether her attitude will change with the passing of the Presidency. Spain has decided to opt out for reasons of its own, possibly because it now has a left-wing socialist government or possibly the better to concentrate on other, more specific demands.
Given the history of the Lowlands and its own internal problems, Belgium may not be over-anxious to raise the spectre of a religious discussion. France is adamant that Christianity should not be associated with the Constitution. The reason lies in French history and politics. The great division has been historically (at least since the expulsion of the Huguenots) between the monarchist, Catholic right and the republican, secularist left. The idea and tradition of the secular state is of supreme importance in France. It underlies that rather silly row about headscarves and other visible symbols of faith; it also means that, though nominally a Catholic country, France is unlikely to agree to a mixing of politics and religion.
Germany, the other powerful member state, has a mixture of denominations and is the land where the notion of cuius regio eius religio originated in the seventeenth century. Roughly speaking, the religious wars were brought to an end in 1648 by a decision to allow the ruler of each state or the state itself to choose whether it wanted to be Catholic or Lutheran (unless it happened to be one of the bits France grabbed, in which case it was the French King who decided).
So much for modern history. There are other difficulties and all of them lie in Europe’s past and in those hard to define European values. Do we mean Christianity or Judaeo-Christianity? The two are linked together in theological, historical and cultural ways and the Jews, for better for worse, have been part of European history from the 1st century AD, at least. What of Europe’s Graeco-Roman or pagan heritage? Is that covered by that rather mealy-mouthed expression “humanist inheritance”? Probably not, as one recalls some aspects of classical religion and philosophy. But they are European values as well.
Finally, what of the Muslim population? There are many of them in Europe and they can safely say that, again for better for worse, they, too, have been part of European history. Indeed, some of the things Europe is so proud of, such as the Renaissance, would not have been possible without the survival of ancient learning under Arab and Moorish rule. That was in the past and more recent relations have been considerably more difficult (though all those conquests and counter-conquests were not exactly picnics). But where do they fit in the scheme as suggested by the Constitution and the seven advocates of Christianity as part of it?
On the one hand the phrase is so vague as to be meaningless, on the other hand all definitions become very particular. But that is what makes European history fascinating and what made Europe such a vibrant entity
How difficult it all becomes when you start defining European values. On the one hand the phrase is so vague as to be meaningless, on the other hand all definitions become very particular. But that is what makes European history fascinating and what made Europe such a vibrant entity. Do we really want a Constitution that wants to regulate even European history to death?
Do we really want a Constitution that wants to regulate even European history to death?