The rejection by Irish voters of a treaty to reform the European Union has exposed serious deficiencies in the workings of the 27-nation body, says the head of a grouping of European Protestant churches.
"The Irish No is a serious test for the European Union," said the Rev Thomas Wipf, the president of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe, which groups Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed and United churches.
"The problem with the EU is that people no longer understand what is going on at a European level," said Wipf, who is also president of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Switzerland. His comments followed the 12 June referendum in Ireland on the accord commonly known as the Lisbon Treaty. The treaty cannot be implemented unless approved by all 27 EU states.
"It is not just a matter of communicating the content of European politics better," said Wipf. The basic problem with the EU is a lack of democracy. Citizens cannot see how they can influence European decisions."
Wipf said, however, that the Irish decision against the Lisbon Treaty was regrettable, since the new EU Treaty is intended to give people in Europe greater opportunity to take part in politics. One example of this, said Wipf, is the obligation set down in the accord for the EU to engage in "open, transparent and regular dialogue" with the churches and faith communities.
For Protestant churches, the European Union represents a successful contribution to the safeguarding of peace after the Second World War, said Wipf. "This process must go on," he added. "We want the future of Europe, and not just national questions, to be discussed now."
Ireland was the only EU country to hold a referendum on the accord, which was signed at Lisbon on 13 December 2007.
In Berlin, the representative of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) to the German government and the EU described the Irish vote as a "clear setback for all those who want to bring the EU closer to citizens, to make it more democratic and able to act".
In an interview with the German Protestant news agency epd, Prelate Stephan Reimers said the ratification process in other European countries should continue. He noted that 18 of the EU's 27 EU states had already agreed to the Lisbon Treaty.
"In my view there is no alternative to the reform treaty," said Reimers. Still, he added, the result of the referendum made clear how much the idea of European unification is seen as elitist and aloof.
There is obviously still not enough communication between the EU and the citizens, lamented Reimers. The European institutions needed to explain better what they are doing, since because of such a lack of information, it becomes easy for "demagogues" to foment prejudices against Brussels, said Reimers.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]