Two visits to Parliament this week provoked some thoughts: the Archbishop of Canterbury and representatives of ethnic minority senior citizens.
The Archbishop, Dr Rowan Williams, was making his first ever visit to the European institutions in general and Parliament in particular. He told MEPs that he saw a great moral purpose to the EU, namely the vision of reconciliation, understanding and peace that lay behind Schuman’s initiative in starting it all off, but felt that the moral purpose had been neglected as Member States had focused more on pragmatic cooperation. The recent enlargement to eastern Europe, however, brought the moral argument back to the fore.
If I understood him correctly, Dr Williams said that European society was a result of centuries of dialogue, discussion and argument between Christianity and the variety of societies that had existed and developed over the ages, and between the Church(es) and political authorities. This had resulted in the argumentative democracies we now enjoy. The interactive pluralism that has developed is fundamental to our shared Europeanism, and the different strands of this argument influenced each other. For instance, the secular/human rights/enlightenment culture had only emerged thanks to the Christian notion that all souls were equal, which, over time, had helped undermine the acceptance of slavery and infanticide.
But Europe is not exclusively Christian, and Dr Williams emphasised that it should not be claimed that the definition of Europe is linked to Christianity. He supported Turkish accession to the EU, provided it meets the conditions, including respect for its minorities (which includes religious minorities). He added that minorities, in current member countries too, must be given space to express themselves in the public sphere. Is that what's been lacking in France?
Meanwhile, the ethnic minority elders, whom I had the privilege of addressing and welcoming to Parliament, came from Leeds (with help from the City Council), Gothenburg, Gent, Bucharest and Dortmund. They had been meeting to compare their situations and the particular problems that many elderly people from ethnic minorities face in terms of isolation, language difficulties and particular illnesses. Their work involved two of the most important challenges facing all European countries over the next decades: ageing population and integration of ethnic minorities. Even when no common European legislation is involved and the issue is largely one for national policy-makers to deal with, the EU can still provide a framework for learning from each other, comparing best practice and contrasting successes and failures.
The group was also a reminder that the EU’s moto of “Unity with diversity” refers not just to the diversity between countries, but the even greater diversity within countries too.