I came to Brussels to contribute to a round-table discussion last night with the President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, and four other guests from Sweden, Greece/France, Germany and Ireland. The theme was Bringing Hope and Solidarity into European Integration.

On arrival in Brussels I was very helpfully briefed on latest developments in the Euro crisis, European competitiveness, demographic movements, migration, energy, employment, and so on. After all, these are the issues that form the context in which any concepts of hope and solidarity have to be worked out.

Herman van Rompuy was embarrassingly excellent. I cannot imagine a senior British politician beginning such a discourse on social solidarity with an exposition of Martin Buber‘s ‘Ich und Du’ (I and Thou). The basic thesis is that people – individually and collectively – exist meaningfully only in relation to others and ‘the other’. Identity is shaped by relationship, and relationship (or encounter) lies at the root of any notion of solidarity. Although Buber speaks initially of ‘persons’, we can extrapolate from this to societies that must be ‘open to the world’. Such openness is integral to and inherent in what it means to be human beings together.

Van Rompuy then explored what this might mean for the European Union, belonging to which does not transcend or replace membership of other (smaller) groupings. It is easy to forget just how enormously important an achievement the European project has been – enabling European countries to build more than just a peaceful co-existence after 1500 years of wars, bloodshed, broken peace treaties, and so on. He concluded that “Europe will be what Europeans make it to be”.

Now, this was designed to start a debate – which it did. We explored whether (especially in the case of the Greeks) solidarity is the desire of the weak at the expense of the strong. Different perceptions of Europe’s future potential were articulated, but especially in the light of the Christian churches’ failures to engage in a meaningful or transformative way with some of Europe’s most pressing issues. I don’t have time to go into depth, but hope a text might be forthcoming at some point.

For my part, I tried simply to suggest that for ‘solidarity’ to mean anything, commitment had to emerge from some sort of shared vision… and a shared vision must emerge from some shared values. These shared values need in turn to arise from some articulated (and not merely assumed) narrative that provides a metaphorical lens through which the ‘project’ can be understood and appreciated. In other words, there needs to be some controlling ‘myth’ which gives meaning to what we are doing together. I went on later to question whether such an articulation was currently forthcoming in the United Kingdom in particular.

Contrast Europe with Kazakhstan, for example. One of the most striking things about any conversation with young Kazakhs is the energy and commitment they show to building their new country. They are only 20 years old and still trying to work out what their ‘backstory’ is. But, they are building something, shaping a future, proudly taking responsibility for their ‘project’. In Europe, however, we find tired cynicism – an attempt to recover a romanticised past or preserve some imagined glory, a sceptical apathy about anything and anyone who tries to identify or articulate a future. (See Nick Cohen’s Guardian destruction of Tony Blair – a journalist responsible for nothing other than expressing his opinion taking apart someone who, for all his failings, is engaged where it matters, trying to bring change.)

Europe has fought its wars and shed it’s blood. Europe’s future lies in a common vision, not in the fragmentation that gave us the last 1500 years of adventure.

Van Rompuy’s line is that we are ‘better together’ than ‘fighting together’. He rightly identifies individualism as a problem (which is where, at the level of national myth or narrative, Europe differs from the USA) if the focus of values is essentially identified in the individual and there is no sense of ‘society’ conceived of as anything more than the sum of individuals.

I made two points which preoccupy me from time to time and which I think need addressing: (a) how can the churches (among others) use their prophetic vocation to offer a renewed or new vision of how Europe can identify hope and solidarity in its common life? and (b) how can the European institutions (and the churches) find a new narrative – and a language for expressing it – that captures both the intellectual commitment of (what I rudely and rather simplistically called) Europe’s Radio 4 and the popular imagination of Europe’s Radio 2 audiences.

Both the EU and European Christian ecumenism emerged from world wars and a determination not to go back to fighting. This fear and resolve forged the narrative that has driven both movements for over sixty years. But, this narrative no longer motivates people for whom the second world war is as remote as the French Revolution. Yes, our young people need to learn history, but they will also need to identify or create a new narrative (controlling myth) that commands positive commitment for the future and is not just driven by fear derived from a past of which they had no part.

Of course, I might be barking up the wrong tree. And we don’t have the luxury of simply thinking this through while everything stops for us. The answers to these demanding questions must be found while we work our way through the immediate crises in which we find ourselves.

Perhaps it would help if we in the UK recognised – despite the shallow disavowals of our politicians – that the Euro crisis is not happening somewhere else and is the result of ‘lazy Greeks versus efficient Germans’, but was largely caused by US and British banking recklessness and failures. ‘Solidarity’ means taking responsibility for one’s neighbour – especially where the neighbour’s circumstances were partly caused by our misbehaviour and hubris.

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