Ministers ready to commit heresy in name of Europe

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Series Details Vol.7, No.29, 19.7.01, p6
Publication Date 19/07/2001
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Date: 19/07/01

THE people of Campanua on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi have an extraordinary way of expressing their faith. Every Easter, a real-life re-enactment of the crucifixion takes place on a hill-top above the city, while thousands of others beat themselves with branches until blood runs down their backs.

Like most other forms of abuse, self-flagellation is a European invention that reached its heyday in the 13th century when brotherhoods of clergymen wandered round whipping themselves as a means of penitence and salvation. After Pope Clement VI condemned the practice in 1349, self-flagellation went out of fashion for half a millennium or so, but it is now back with a vengeance.

At their monthly meeting in Brussels last week, EU foreign ministers queued up to clobber themselves for failing to connect with a public which for decades has remained blissfully ignorant of the rituals indulged in by member state missionaries.

The leader of this peculiar sect, the somewhat saintly Belgian Louis Michel, talked about the public's "malaise" with the European project and said to bring the flock back to the faith, politicians needed to "do more than a bit of soul-searching".

To kick-start the debate, Michel handed the mike over to Irish foreign minister Brian Cowen, who quipped: "In calling me first I hope you're not taking me as an expert in communicating the importance of Europe."

Cue lots of nervous laughter all round. Cowen's thesis will be familiar to reformist priests who have spent many an anguished moment pondering how to win back churchgoers seduced by a lethal combination of agnosticism and Sunday shopping.

Basically, it goes something like this: instead of talking about the passion/Second World War that gave birth to Europe's new dawn, politicians/priests should constantly explain to their congregation/voters the benefits of Christianity/Europe in language that they understand.

References to the Bible/ Treaty of Rome and the founding fathers/apostles will merely alienate people, as will mystical visions of the future. "We shouldn't engage in a visionary agenda which is not real to people," said Cowen, before pleading for the "primacy of politics" to be re-established.

The Portuguese minister was even more damning in his criticism, referring to an "accumulation of errors that has seriously damaged the public image of the European Union".

However, in Jaime Gama's opinion, the series of own-goals the EU has scored recently does not mean that foreign ministers should lose any sleep. "A troubled conscience is always in proportion to a lack of legitimacy and I don't think we've got a troubled conscience," said Lisbon's roving emissary.

Michel then gave the floor to Spanish foreign minister Josep Piqué, who is currently under investigation on corruption charges.

It was truly confession time at the Council of Ministers' imposing Justus Lipsius building and ministers poured out their vices like serial sinners. Renato Ruggiero, who until recently was head of the World Trade Organisation, said that the EU had to show its citizens that it could protect them against the pernicious effects of globalisation.

And Jack Straw, who until May was regarded as one of the UK government's most Eurosceptic members, said that politicians had to "evangelise" more to explain the benefits of Europe's broad church.

The meeting was advertised as a public debate. Despite the fact that there was no real debate and no members of the public watching on closed circuit television, the audience of journalists remained in hushed silence throughout as minister after minister lined up to speak from the heart about the 'future of Europe'.

Those who are against opening up Council of Ministers' meetings to public scrutiny argue that the public wouldn't be interested in following their debates anyway. They may have a point when it comes to technical discussions about obscure directives, but if Monday's discussion is anything to go by, there is a lot to be gained by handing politicians the mike and letting them rip for 15 minutes.

As Michel said in his closing remarks: "We are all politicians because we like to engage in debate and politics. "Maybe that's what Europe needs more than anything."

Allowing ministers to speak freely? Letting elected politicians run Europe instead of unelected bureaucrats? Engaging the public in an honest debate about the EU?

Now that really is heresy. BY Gareth Harding

Feature on the debate at the General Affairs Council, Brussels, 16.7.01 on the need for the EU to connect more closely to European citizens.

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