15 May 2018

European integration and political ideologies

Bad Liebenzell
Last month I was privileged to spend time in Germany at the Internationale Hochschule Liebenzell (IHL) in Bad Liebenzell, a beautiful village nestled in the Black Forest. The IHL is a ministry of the Liebenzell Mission, which was founded in 1899 and has its roots in a late nineteenth-century revival in Germany. It has branches in Canada, the Northern Mariana Islands, and six other countries around the world. The Mission is active in church-planting, Bible translation, education, evangelism, children and youth ministry, medical care, air service, substance addiction therapies, ministry to immigrants and community development in twenty-five countries. Remarkably, it also has monastic-like brotherhoods and sisterhoods, a fellowship of deaconesses, a retreat centre and a literature distribution ministry. It appears to be independent of any denomination, yet it does plant church congregations.

The thesis of my talk was that Europe’s future may never be free of the ideological illusions that have struggled for supremacy since 1789, but that recovering the principle of subsidiarity, as embodied in the Maastricht Treaty, would serve to fragment their influence. Here is the relevant article, 3b, of the Treaty:

In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member states and can therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community. Any action by the Community shall not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the objectives of this Treaty.

Subsidiarity is rooted in the Catholic social teachings that the various popes, beginning with Leo XIII, have articulated. These would come to have a profound influence on the architects of the European Union, including Robert Schuman (1886-1963), Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967) and Alcide de Gasperi (1881-1954), who were devout Catholics. Subsidiarity generally favours decentralization of shared endeavours in a plural society. If the current EU leadership in Brussels have largely forgotten these roots, it is all the more reason for ordinary Europeans to recall them to these roots, either directly through the European Parliament or through their own governments.

If we take subsidiarity seriously, Europe’s future could look more like the Holy Roman Empire than Canadian or American federalism, with the member states relating to Brussels in different ways. In other words, it would favour, not symmetrical, but asymmetrical federalism, with which we have some experience in Canada due to the special place of Québec in Confederation. A future European Union could consist of a more tightly integrated core of the original six member states, with other member states opting out of some of its integrating features, including the euro zone and the Schengen Agreement. These would retain greater autonomy vis-à-vis Brussels, keeping their own currencies and central banks, along with other markers of independent nationhood. Such a two- or three-speed Europe could make even Brexit unnecessary.

This in itself would not liberate Europe from the distorting effects of the ideological illusions that have secularized the continent over the past three centuries. Given their basic religious character, ideologies do not die that easily, and even when they appear to do so, they can easily return in another form. Yet such decentralization might serve to weaken them by geographically limiting their influence, and this may be the best that we can hope for in the foreseeable future. But of greater significance is the possibility that decentralization could create sufficient room at the local levels for a dynamic Christian social witness to make its presence felt. The days of European Christendom are long gone, with few vestiges remaining. However, in a Europe that eschews imperial pretensions and glories in the diversity of its regions, there may be fertile ground for the gospel to spread and to take root in the very communities that are closest to the people and matter most to them.

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