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The 2014 Elections to the European Parliament

Ken Medhurst

The European Parliament: a potentially crucial institution

Between 22 and 25 May this year, European Union (EU) citizens can vote for members of the European Parliament which will be in place until 2019. Recent turnouts in such elections have been low. In 2009 the figure was 43 per cent.

This partly reflects a trans-European disenchantment with the perceived failure of politicians to grapple with massive economic and social problems. The disenchantment is exacerbated by the notion that national political elites are self-serving.

This general mood is particularly heightened when it comes to the EU and its institutions. The latter are little understood and widely seen as remote, unresponsive and unduly prone to accumulate powers at the expense of elected national governments. In principle the European Parliament is designed to overcome such difficulties but, in practice and despite some enlargement of its powers, the impact of this potentially crucial institution has been limited. Local electorates continue to function along national rather than transnational lines and respond to short-term national rather than long-term Europe-wide issues. Large constituencies add to the sense of remoteness. Few can name their European parliamentary representatives.

The net effect, across Europe, is dwindling popular support for 'the European project'. There has been a rise of nationalist or populist parties that feed off the general 'anti-politics' mood. They are sometimes fuelled by xenophobia and even racism - old European demons that, clearly, have yet to be fully exorcised. Immigrants and the EU are particular targets for their resentments. Withdrawal from the EU is an ultimate goal.

For Christians, and for others with humanity's abiding welfare at heart, there are compelling reasons to suppose that this would be an historically defining act of collective irresponsibility inviting posterity's harshest judgement.

'Globalization' has thrown up or is accompanied by challenges that, as never before, underline all of humanity's inescapable interdependence. Climate change, growing inequality, security threats, population movements and, not least, criminality are no respecters of national borders. All point to the need for an international order entailing a shared quest for security and justice - an order requiring robust international institutions. The alternative is liable to be a world out of control.

Building on what the European Union has achieved so far

The EU, for all its limitations, may legitimately be regarded as a major building block in the construction of such an order. Its genesis lay amidst Europe's post-Second World War ruins and amongst continental political leaders who appreciated that inherited concepts of the wholly independent national sovereign state had been tested beyond the point of destruction. Their goal was not the abolition of states but the pooling of sovereignty in ways designed to foster their recovery and, above all, permanently to reconcile those (notably France and Germany) whose rivalries had provoked centuries of warfare. The way was particularly paved by Roman Catholic Christians inspired by a vision of continental peace, social solidarity, democratic governance, and respect for human rights.

The result has been decades of historically unprecedented West European stability. The dangers run by myopically ignoring this achievement were underlined by the horrors of post-Yugoslavian wars. Equally, the achievement's significance has been highlighted by the attractions of EU membership for post-dictatorial countries in Western and Eastern Europe. For them shelter within the EU satisfied a desire for the underwriting of democratic credentials and for gaining badges of international acceptance. Such aspirations serve as a reproach to all narrowly construed forms of nationalism.

They are also a reproach to those narrowly utilitarian approaches to EU membership based chiefly on calculations of economic advantage. Given contemporary global realities true 'realism' points to a more rather than a less unified Europe. Economic and political power has long since ebbed away from Europe not only in the direction of the USA but also of such other emerging giants as China. To suppose that European countries can separately exercise great influence over the direction of world affairs is to chase a mirage. Collectively, however, they have the potential capacity creatively to contribute to the tackling of humanity's shared problems. Europe's shared legacy and experience could be more fully placed at humankind's service. There is also a 'Christian realism' pointing to the desirability of countries permanently combining in ways capable of checking great powers with threateningly hegemonic aspirations. Such cooperation also seems likely to make multinational economic enterprises more obviously accountable.

The UK's distinctive position

The attitude of the United Kingdom (UK) to 'the European movement' has always been ambivalent. Avoidance of war-time defeat and occupation combined with lingering dreams of empire nurtured a belief, shared by political leaders and the general public, that the country could stand apart from moves toward European integration. The notion of a 'special relationship' with the USA worked to the same end. By the 1960s, however, unfolding economic realities, plus loss of empire, persuaded a portion of our political elite that the stark long-term alternatives were a much diminished world role or closer European ties. Thus, in 1973, the UK joined the European Economic Community, the EU's immediate predecessor. In 1975, a referendum confirmed our membership. Reservations, however, persisted and lately have grown.

This could partly be ascribed to lack of clear explanation and appropriate guidance from political leaders. It is also due to a lingering sense of 'British exceptionalism'. Much may also be explained by fears and resentments not exclusively or even mainly attributable to the EU but for which the latter is at least partly blamed.

The roots of such discontents lie deep and tangled. The problems may partly be accounted for by a specifically English (as opposed to Scottish and Welsh) identity crisis. Substantial numbers of voters, especially amongst older generations, look regretfully back to an era when Britain seemed a still great power and a nation relatively unchallenged by immigration and rapid changes in generally accepted moral codes. Mixed in with that is a pervasive sense of popular disempowerment frequently linked to the divisive impact of market forces, the erosion of old solidarities and a sense of being excluded or overlooked when it comes to sharing the fruits of the market. A sense of powerlessness finds defensive expression vis a vis large-scale immigration and the EU. In the latter case it gives rise to unhelpful myths concerning, for example the size and resources of the EU institutions.

The need for reform

Fears and resentments make bad counsellors. It is necessary, however, to look honestly into their deepest causes in order that they may be most appropriately addressed. Not least, the EU's current inadequacies need to be recognized in order that it may better serve its citizens and more fully live out its original vocation. This, rather than disengagement, is the way forward.

A major difficulty is the extent to which the EU has become a party to contemporary 'free market' economic orthodoxies. The original drive towards integration had economics at its heart. The idea was so fully to integrate Europe's economies that warfare would be inconceivable. That, however, was in the context of a post-war international Keynesian-inspired settlement which assumed major governmental intervention in pursuit of full employment and extensive social welfare provision. The breakdown of that consensus, from the 1970s onwards, created new conditions. A 'Single European Market' was created, and trumpeted as a particularly great achievement, but in circumstances that placed great strains on the early 'European vision'. (EU enlargement greatly added to the difficulty.) Regional policies and social protection measures meant some continuance of income redistribution and a partial taming of the market's more divisive or destructive forces. Recent developments, however, highlight the limitations of reliance on economic mechanisms without commensurate supranational political instruments. In particular the adoption by some countries of a common currency (the Euro) but without common fiscal and budgetary arrangements left the EU ill equipped to respond to the ravages of the post-2008 global economic crisis. International and intranational economic inequalities have grown at the expense of that quest for solidarity and justice which inspired the original postwar vision. Withdrawal from the EU is liable to exacerbate such problems. Their solution requires coordinated supranational political action at the European and, ultimately, global level.

More coordinated political action also seems necessary if the EU is to realize its full potential in international affairs. Much has been done in, for example, the granting of aid to developing countries. However, the Ukrainian and Syrian crises together with the outcome of the Copenhagen conference on global climate change underline the severe limitations of present arrangements.

The precise nature of any changes deserves to be the subject of extensive debate. The EU is currently a unique amalgam of the supranational and international as well as the technocratic and democratic. The technocratic, as represented by the European Commission, constitutes, for many, a particular stumbling block. Ultimately it is the junior partner of national governments but as the chief source and enforcer of EU legislation it has supplied the main driving force behind the integration process. For example, it drove the expansion from the original 6 partners to the current 28. It is widely perceived, however, as remote and overly centralized. Despite some enhancing of the EU's democratic element, in the shape of a strengthened parliament, it is also seen as insufficiently accountable.

Its salience is traceable back to the crucial role placed by technocratic French functionaries in the creation of embryonic European institutions. That situation reflected postwar political realities but, in the light of changed circumstances, a major overhaul seems appropriate.

One possibility, much vaunted by some politicians, is the 'repatriation' of certain powers to national governments. That accords with the principle of 'subsidiarity' already enshrined in EU legislation, though raising the question of which powers. But it does not deal with the ways in which the Commission may be held fully accountable for the use of remaining prerogatives.

Addressing that issue seems necessary if the EU is to avoid a further draining away of legitimacy and is to recover a clear sense of direction.

Faith's contribution

The latter presupposes a recovery of that sense of moral purpose which first inspired the 'European Movement'. That initial clarity of vision has ebbed away in face of the primacy accorded to economics over politics and technocracy over democracy. The fruits of this have been revealed in the shape of mass-European and particularly youth unemployment with all that implies for human welfare and the tragic depletion of Europe's social capital.

It is at this point that Christians have a potentially creative role to play. Largely because of French technocratic influence Europe's Christian inheritance has been downplayed within the EU. Present circumstances, however, present an opportunity for Christians, and others of faith, to assert themselves, in non-triumphalist fashion, in service of the ideals and values which first animated the 'European Movement' (the Pope and Archbishop Welby are already doing this). The sense of a 'common good', never wholly lost in many parts of continental Europe, can thereby be more firmly established. A forward looking and realistic hope might thus replace the current appetite for drift, apathy or nostalgia. In the particular case of the UK we could be powerfully reminded of what historically unites us to the continent rather than the things that separate.

The current elections: a call to reflection

Forthcoming elections are but staging posts amidst a long journey. They will, however, show us where we currently stand and offer the opportunity to debate the relevant issues. Often these will be presented in terms of populist slogans, and short-term economic or parochial political concerns. For people of faith, by contrast, there is a call discerningly to read 'the Signs of the Times'. These, ultimately are about the type of world we wish to bequeath to our descendants. Do we wish to join fully in collective efforts to tackle the great global issues concerning peace, justice and environmental degradation or do we wish to retreat into our separate national bunkers in pursuit of an ultimately illusory 'independence?'

The exact way forward must be the subject of a debate in which Christians, along with everyone else, may find themselves divided. Christians, however, can gather together around certain guiding principles. They can acknowledge that all human arrangements are provisional and liable to corruption or judgement. Consequently, no human institution should be the subject of idolatry. Rather, they should be assessed in terms of their capacity (however imperfectly) to bring true fullness of life to all humanity (and not just small privileged sectors). They need to be seen in the light of the promises held out to us by the vision of God's coming Kingdom. As citizens of that Kingdom we are called prayerfully to engage with the world's problems and thoughtfully to exercise our share of responsibility. Flight from reality is not a legitimate option.

Revd Canon Professor Kenneth Medhurst is an Emeritus Professor of the University of Bradford,
former Director of 'Christianity and the Future of Europe',
and a member of the Committee of 'Faith in Europe'.


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