Well, that's the sort of title to set the cat among the pigeons.

It sometimes seems impossible to have an intelligent, informed and adult conversation about Europe, it's future and its value. A bit like mentioning immigration in the British press. It could be thought that this isn't the best time to be opening a new conversation about Europe: the news is dominated by the refugee and migrant crisis across the continent, and views vary about what should be done.

But, a new blog – Reimagining Europe – has been launched this week precisely in order to open a different sort of conversation. A wide range of contributors from across the spectrum of opinion has been invited to write. The idea is that people can listen and contribute to a debate that needs to be had. Whatever the future holds and whatever shape Europe takes politically, we will still have to live together in a common continent.

So, this is the church's invitation to a better conversation. Set up by the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, it is a case of the churches creating a new space for another dialogue. I hope it will get around some of the polemical polarisation we have become used to (and weary of) when the question of Europe is posed. As we approach the referendum in due course, this blog should prove useful.

 

It's interesting to watch the political parties responding like headless chickens to the Euro-elections. Short-term reaction again, or taking a long-term view of future threats and opportunities? I guess time will tell.

What interests me in all this is less the dramatic interpretations of the immediate and more the question that lies at the heart of the current debate: what sort of Europe do we wish to create?

Go to young countries like Kazakhstan and you can't help but be struck by the constructive optimism of young people. Yes, there are problems and there are serious questions about power and corruption; but the young people believe they are building something better than what they had in the past. Come back to Europe and it feels like we are tired, cynical and trying to justify hanging on to something we have inherited.

And this has less to do with European institutions than it does with a European narrative of identity and purpose. We can easily re-shape institutions without properly addressing the core question of meaning. Who and what is Europe for?

I was interested in Archbishop Cranmer's piece on Europe. He claims that the bishops of the Church of England are uncritical europhiles. He further claims that they/we accept Europe as it is. Neither is actually true.

I have written before about the need for a new guiding narrative in Europe if a younger generation is to be engaged in any way. I made this point at a round table discussion with Herman van Rompuy in Brussels a couple of years ago. I made it again at a meeting of the House of Bishops recently. I continue to ask how we can establish a process that explores a new narrative without getting bogged down in arguments about institutions alone.

The House of Bishops Europe Panel, of which I have been a member, was not set up to defend the European Union. It was set up to take seriously the nature of European identity, and to consider our European ecumenical relationships in the light of wider European political and cultural contexts.

And here lies a further challenge. The post-war ecumenical project arose from the blood of European conflict and the resolve to establish relationships that would make war impossible in the future. It mirrored (and sometimes led) the political drive towards closer relationships. But, just as the ecumenical generation is ageing, so is the generation of those who grew up with the political project.

Both need a new narrative – one that can be created by and engage the imagination of my children's generation and younger. Only then will they know what they are building, and why. Creating something generates energy and vision; hanging on to something inherited does not necessarily do the same job.

That's the challenge. I am interested to explore how we begin that sort of conversation – one that goes beyond, and is not captivated by, the institutions that should reflect our purpose.

 

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.