Each year, the European Commission hosts a high-level meeting with religious leaders from across Europe. This year’s meeting took place on November 29th in the Brussels Berlaymont building with the theme of ‘migration, integration and European values’.
The meeting was hosted by First Vice-President Timmermans. A rather smaller group than in previous years of mainly Christians, Muslims and Jews was invited, with the intention of a deeper than usual level of conversation. This intent was not disappointed, as leaders engaged seriously with the issues, aware that Europe is at a critical time in its history. I was invited to speak first in the dialogue session, and my speech is below.
My contribution began with an exchange with Mr. Timmermans. “I appreciate the irony in me, as a post-Brexit Brit being invited to speak about European values”, I said. He answered: “We would love you to stay”. “I would love to stay too”, I answered, “the problem is that 52% of my compatriots want to leave.” And so….
“It is evident that we face a re-birth of nationalism. This is a reality expressed in Brexit, in nationalist governments in Austria, Hungary and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe. Following the 2008 banking crisis, the migration crisis, and the effects of globalization people have felt their governments have not taken proper care of them: they have felt forgotten, left-behind, lacking control. So nationalism has become our new reality.
This means, at least, that any debate about ‘values’ at a European level must be matched by debates at national levels. It means we have to encourage and propagate national values which promote the common good in contrast to a fearful, inward-looking stance that is expressed in mistrust of the foreigner.
But we also have to recognize that the kinds of values that have real moral force do not emerge from central, technocratic decree. They come from histories of interaction and from stories. And above all in Europe they come from the stories of the Judeao-Christian tradition.
As it happens, these stories are rich in concern for the alien, the foreigner and the stranger – all the way from Abraham unknowingly entertaining angels to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.
The founding fathers of the EU drew heavily on Catholic Social Teaching. In a recent lecture in Paris, the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that the vision and values of Europe in the 21st century need to be catholic with a small ‘c’ – that is flexible, comprehensive, inclusive. He suggested four principal values. These are:
- Subsidiarity: the recognition that Europe is a complex array of cultures and nations shaped by multiple stories, where loyalties and virtues are most often developed and displayed at lower levels.
- Solidarity: a sense of togetherness between richer and poorer parts of our continent, with an especial concern for the alien and the stranger.
- Gratuity, or what Pope Benedict called ‘grace in action’: a recognition that people are not merely consumers with powers of economic exchange but citizens who are made in the image of God.
- Creativity: a sense of thankfulness for the remarkable transformation of life which Europe has achieved for its citizens over the last 60 years.
These are values which are inclusive, life-giving and which could inspire Europeans of all nationalities in the pursuit of the common good and in the building of our common European home.”
Was the meeting worthwhile? Very much so. Just getting senior religious leaders together in this way is a visible demonstration of the positive contribution of religion to European life and our desire to work together. There were several good ideas suggested. For example, the Commission could organize a gathering of young religious representatives to consider how to engage disillusioned young people. There could be a training session for religious Communications Officers so that together they could devise strategies for countering religious extremism in social media. And there was widespread agreement on the importance of improving religious literacy.
At the end of the meeting, one of the translators said enthusiastically to me: “That was the most interesting meeting I have attended here for the last two or three years!” This kind of open dialogue between the EU’s top people and religious leaders is honest, candid and refreshing. It is an exercise that I would love to see imitated by some of our national governments.