European divisions and cultures: negotiate all the way

By Graeme Smith
February 11, 2013

The reason we talk to strangers, the reason we risk discussion, is that the product of these dialogues is always a greater, deeper appreciation of truthfulness than anything we might achieve by speaking to ourselves or just to our friends.

This is the wisdom that has inspired Christian ecumenical exchanges as well as interfaith dialogues throughout the centuries. It is a wisdom that we need to draw upon now as we consider Britain's future in Europe.

The problem of UK membership of the European Union is at heart an ecumenical problem. Much like the USA, Europe is divided by deep cultural preferences and prejudices. But whereas the US is divided between costal liberals and heartland conservatives, Europe is more simply split between Protestants and Catholics. The European Union is an attempt, you could say, to undo the divisions of the Reformation.

The Protestants, which include the Tory euro-sceptics who have provoked the current controversy, are committed to freedom. Shaped by the voluntarist tradition which underpinned much of Luther’s revolution, they fear the overbearing power of the State. They suspect ‘Brussels’ of removing their social, political, and especially economic liberty. In the European order we cannot pursue the entrepreneurial dream of freedom and innovation and must instead conform to regulation after regulation, buried in unnecessary red tape. The Protestant vision of free choice and individual, personal self-reliance is threatened by all things European, or more particularly, all things Catholic. To Protestants the European Union looks like a return to the pretensions of global ecclesiology, the Universal Church, in which local and national identity is lost.

By contrast, Catholics prioritise the welfare of all members of the community. The community, through the vehicle of the State, is the mechanism for ensuring there is political peace and social justice. The State cannot be overbearing because the State is the means of achieving the common good. The social, political and economic well-being of all is nurtured and realised through strong communal bonds engendered by legislation. Catholics fear the anarchy of the free market, the injustice and inequality of a society built around the interests of the entrepreneur. Freedom is not freedom without equality. There can be no peace without justice. Protestant individualism destroys stability and harmony and fosters injustice.

So the problem of Europe is at heart a choice, in fact it is an impossible choice. Do we follow the Catholic direction and choose justice, or the Protestant bias and prioritise freedom? Of course Catholics will argue that true freedom can only be based in justice and Protestants will state that genuine justice only comes as a result of freedom. Neither group sees its position as exclusive. But this only emphases the division. The question is which do you put first, a question which reveals that 'Protestants' and 'Catholics' have different priorities.

It is at this point that those engaged in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue can offer us some help. Dialogue is the process by which we learn in depth about an alternate cultural or religious tradition. Dialogue also functions as a mirror, as we listen to others so we understand more about ourselves; the interaction with the other reveals us to ourselves. The truthfulness of the other deepens our knowledge of our own truthfulness.

Dialogue cannot have an end point. It cannot be an honest encounter with the other as other, valuing their beliefs and perspectives, with the secret hope that the other will change their stance and convert to our position. Dialogue begins in expectation that it cannot end, that what allows us to learn and develop in our own tradition, is that the other we meet is different, and that difference should be treasured. If they convert then they cease to be other and become our friend. Whilst it is nice to have lots of friends, if we only talk to our friends then we lose one avenue to deeper understanding of truthfulness. So dialogue needs continuing difference. Conversion breaks the mirror of difference.

Life in the European Union is one of continuing political negotiation. No political realist is surprised that national leaders constantly seek to protect and advance the interests of their country. The European Union is the place of permanent dialogue between different interests, and more substantially different political cultures.

These negotiations are wrongly judged an inconvenience or painful necessity, required to prevent higher British contributions or excessive social legislation. These negotiations are the form and nature of the ecumenical dialogues and conversations which allow us to reach a deeper and more truthful understanding of ourselves. They are the mechanism by which, ultimately, we will reach beyond the stale divide of liberty or justice. If we shut ourselves away we are left trying to debate in an echo chamber in which what seems truthful is what we have just said. If we live with the other, in an honest and ongoing condition of conversation, then we can mine a deeper truth which will take us beyond the places where we now seem stuck.

So when it comes to Europe we should negotiate all the way. But we shouldn’t leave because if we do then we are the losers. We will soon get bored of the sound of our own voice.


© Graeme Smith is Reader in Public Theology at the University of Chichester. He has worked previously at St Michael’s College, Llandaff and Cardiff University, and Oxford Brookes University. An Ekklesia associate, his research interests are in contemporary social and political theology. He is editor of the international journal Political Theology ( and author of the books A Short History of Secularism and Oxford 1937: The Universal Christian Council for Life and Work Conference, as well as academic articles on Thatcherism, Blair, Richard Rorty and Pragmatism, and Red Toryism.

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