The question of what kind of Europe we want has become a burning issue. However, the present discussion is strikingly negative. According to the polls, opinion is moving towards staying in, but that is largely fuelled by the growing realisation that leaving will cause a huge number of problems. So, people may be turning against Brexit, but they are hardly turning to Europe in any positive spirit. The present discussion is largely about finding the least bad way forward.
I find this very depressing. The EU was born out of idealism in the aftermath of the WWII. It has kept the peace in Europe, and indeed on the Island of Ireland, which is a remarkable achievement. But no one is celebrating these achievements, and the EU project is downing in bureaucracy and series of rather shabby compromises to try to keep the show on the road.
The UK was always ambivalent about joining. There was a long period between the first application in 1961 and the referendum that confirmed membership in 1975. Britain was never united in its decision to join. Looking back there was a striking lack of positive reasons for joining. It seems always to have been a calculation about being worse off outside.
This has reminded me of a conference held at Coventry Cathedral in 1967 on “A Vision of Europe”. There is much that I find inspiring, looking back at the Lectures, Addresses and Sermons given at that conference, but most important is the opening address given by the Provost of Coventry, H. C. N. (‘Bill’) Williams. He emphasised that if Europe is to work it must be more than an economic convenience; we must believe in it, and there must be common moral, religious and cultural values.
“One of the purposes of this “Vision of Europe” week is to call attention to the depth of human need for unity and coherence; and to call for a prophetic assertion that the supra-national, supra-political bond for which we all long must be found within the context of a religious view of life. We assert our faith that the divisions of nationality into which the accident of birth has placed us must be made to serve a deeper unity, as a deliberate, visionary act of faith and will.”
He maintains that it is to “a reassertion of the basic values of justice, compassion, tolerance, discipline, mutual understanding and mutual responsibility that Europe must now be called. Almost the entire debate about Europe so far has been about economic, political, industrial and commercial arrangements. The deep suspicions that remain unalloyed by hopes of greater material security are an indication that a bond deeper and stronger than political and economic treaties is required first. Where there is no common trust based on mutual understanding, greater economic and industrial proximity will lead to greater mistrust and envy, not less.” 50 years on those are strikingly prophetic words.
The task remains as it was then. We need to recognise “that human society is built on a shared compassion; a shared concern for the heritage we pass on to the young: a shared concern for the moral use of power; a shared refusal to allow personal values to be obliterated by the impersonal planning of a megalopolis; a shared determination that the ease of travel should be made to facilitate ease of communication, so that our modern Babels, in which we give basic words different meanings and no one knows what anyone else is talking about, may be destroyed; it asserts that human society is built on a common love of music and art, and on a common love of learning.”
In the present debates I wish there were voices expressing such a vision of human society that transcended narrow national interests.