King's Evangelical Divinity School

26 October 2009

Turkey, the EU and Religion

As the Lisbon Treaty approaches final ratification across the European Union, the search is now on for the new so-called President of Europe, with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair touted as a strong contender. I'm not sure Blair will get the position - he's a divisive figure in a Union which is itself divided over its own vision, with Blair's views falling firmly within one of those camps. Evidence of this EU schizophrenia is raising the issue, once again, of Turkey's proposed membership of the EU. Back in 2006 I wrote an article for the KEDS blog on the issue of the EU and Turkey, with a particular focus on religion, and listening to the debate on the news today I thought it might be useful to reproduce the article here. Just remember it was originally written over three years ago and because I've reproduced it without updating it, several bits may be slightly out of date.

Over the weekend [back in 2006] I watched an interview with Jose Manuel Barosso, President of the European Commision, who believed it would likely be at least fifteen, even twenty years before Turkey might be permitted entry into the European Union. “So what?” I hear some of you say. “What has this to do with a blog concerned with Christianity and politics?” Quite a lot, actually. The following brief comment seeks to bring some theological analysis to bear on the whole European Union issue, and I hope readers find it useful.

Since its conception, the EU has been viewed with deep suspicion by premillennialist Christians who regard the EU is a type (if not the actual embodiment) of the Beast in the book of Revelation. Born out of the Treaty of Rome, encompassing many of the old Roman territories, and following an increasing anti-Israel agenda all help to make the EU, as far as many premillennialists are concerned, a prime candidate for a new Rome-type empire of the kind described in Daniel and Revelation.

Meanwhile, some Reformed Protestants view the EU with suspicion for a quite different reason. The EU reminds them of another Europe-wide empire, closely associated with Charlemagne but one which survived through to the nineteenth century. This empire (German: Reich) was substantially made up of German-speaking peoples and was known as the Holy Roman Empire. At its height, it covered most of Central Europe, together with Belgium, Holland, and parts of Italy and France. Bismarck’s Second German Empire in the late nineteenth century eventually became known as the Second Reich, thus Hitler chose to name his Nazi empire the Third Reich. But it is not the German character of these previous European unions, or even the Nazi nature of the last one, which worries some Reformed Protestants. Rather, what concerns them is the strongly Catholic nature of the Holy Roman Empire and other attempts to unite Europe. Thus, the EU is regarded with suspicion as a possible forebear of another Catholic empire stretching across Europe.

When melded together - a premmillennialist belief in a new Roman empire, together with a Protestant emphasis on a Europe-wide Catholic bloc - these views represent a powerful rejection of the European Union project for theological reasons. Suspicion of the EU is furthered strengthened as the EU becomes ever more centralised at the expense of sovereign member states, where national legislation and judicial process increasingly play a secondary role to the EU’s own institutions. Christians find the EU’s increasing powers ominous, which further feeds into a theological rejection of a European union.

So what has this to do with Barosso’s view that it will be some time before Turkey is allowed to join the EU? Turkey is desperate to join the European club. Whatever one’s views of the EU may be (and views are diverse), one thing is agreed upon: membership of the EU is hugely beneficial for poorer countries, both through the lucrative hand-outs and subsidies they receive, and also access to a massive open market for the sale of cheap goods and labour.

Britain supports Turkish entry into the EU for ideological reasons. Since its inception, the EU has sought an ever closer, centralised union. Those who hold this view (which includes the original architects of the European project) are known as federalists. Their aim is to create a "deep" union that will eventually bypass sovereign member states. Their primary focus is no so much economics as social policy (this is why the Social Chapter was such an important part of EU policy). Predominant among the countries holding this view are France and Germany, which have long sought to unite and control between them the EU, creating a Europe in their image.

Britain is a traditionally anti-federalist nation, regardless of who is in power, whether Labour or Conservative. Britain has a long tradition of wanting free trade based on a lengthy and illustrious maritime history by virtue of her status as an island nation. Thus, her maritime history has led to a strong focus on world trade to further her economic ambitions. Hence, for Britain the social aims of the EU are far less important than the economic opportunities it provides. A Europe-wide single market is reminiscent of another great trading bloc, the British Empire, which Britain exploited for its own economic purposes. So when Britain sought entry to the EU, she was originally opposed by France, who feared a different ideological focus might dilute the European project.

In fact, French fears were not unfounded and it now transpires Britain has succeeded in her ambitions. British membership represented a serious challenge to the federalist cause. While the federalists seek an ever deeper union, Britain instead focused on and promoted the virtues of an ever wider union. Her reasons were two-fold: Firstly, a wider, rather than deeper union dilutes the federalist dream (the more countries who are members, the less powerful a centralised block can be), and secondly, it creates an even bigger trading bloc, which is, after all, what Britain cares most about. This explains why Britain has always pressed for EU expansion; it is in order to satisfy these two strategic aims. Thus, when one considers the European rhetoric and policies of a British PM like Tony Blair, it is easy to see him as a Euro-enthusiast. But in fact all he has done is further historic British policy towards Europe, helping to bring about a greatly widened union, as well as forging a strong Atlanticist and "New Europe" bloc to rival the old Franco-German axis (cf Donald Rumsfeld’s comments about "Old Europe"). It is indeed ironic that a pro-European like Blair has so successfully dented the federalist agenda. He may be a pro-European, but he is very firmly within that camp that has a distinctly British view of Europe, namely, a wide (not deep), de-centralised, single market. He pays lip service to the social issues, but economics certainly come first. This stance has totally wrong-footed French President Jacques Chirac, who regards Blair as an impertinent upstart.
[Note: Since writing this originally back in 2006, Balir is now of course being touted as a possible leader of Europe under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty. If he gets the position it will be interesting to see if his European vision has changed.]

It is this very British policy that has led Britain to push for Turkish entry to the EU. Again, Turkish entry will further weaken federalist ambitions (how can one speak of a federal Europe when a country on the periphery of the continent with a distinct cultural and religious heritage is a member?), as well as provide Britain with fresh economic opportunities by opening up Turkey to British goods and services, while allowing an influx to Britain of cheap labour. Yet on this score, Blair is not having much success. It seems most of Europe does not want to have Turkey as a member. Chief among the concerns raised by those not favouring Turkish entry are its human rights abuses and the view that Turkish entry no longer makes this a European union by virtue of its distinct cultural and religious identy. And here, finally is the crux of the matter.

Turkey is a Muslim nation. To be sure, it is a secular nation, but the majority of Turks are Muslims nonetheless. European leaders worry that Turkish entry threatens the continent’s distinct Christian history. Previously, these religious concerns did not hold much sway when the issue was discussed by pragmatic politicians who were often not particularly religiously observant themselves. But a lot has happened in the past five years or so since the attacks on 9/11. Many Muslims in countries such as France and Britain have become strongly radicalised (France, with 6 million Muslims, is particularly concerned about further radicalisation). Islamic terrorism, an apparent clash of civilisations looming, and events in the Middle East have all helped to propel religious objections to Turkish EU entry to the top of the agenda. The failed EU constitution eventually watered down considerably any reference to specific Christian religion. But in light of the new challenges a radicalised Muslim world offers, a proposed EU constitution with a distinctive Christian stamp is being proposed by, among others, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Pope strongly disagrees with Turkish entry to the EU by virtue of its Muslim faith. Other leading European politicans agree. In short, the perceived Muslim threat is leading Europeans to draw ranks and declare Europe has a distinctly Christian heritage which should not be watered down at any cost, which means denying Turkish entry to the EU. It is an interesting phenomenon. In recent months I have come across avidly anti-Catholic Protestants who, in the face of a perceived Muslim threat, are more willing now than ever before to strike an alliance with Catholics to defend certain common Christian principles. You may find that, if and when Islamic nations and communities within Europe become more and more radicalised, ecumenism may flourish as a survival strategy.
[Note: Interestingly in an interview today (26 Oct 2009) British Foreign Secretary David Milliband stated the EU is a club of common values, not ethnicity or religion, once again demonstrating how the British perception and vision of the EU differs from that of many of its EU partners.]

Meanwhile, those who support Turkish entry to the EU believe that by incorporating a moderate Muslim nation within Europe, it helps to defeat the lie that the West is out to destroy Islam, that it is somehow set on a new crusade against Muslims. On the other hand, such adherents argue, to deny Turkey entry despite her best efforts to reform will represent a massive slap in the face for the Muslim nation, which may react by becoming more and more extreme. After all, Turkey is a secular country which even forbids the wearing of the veil in certain places (unlike the UK, where the full veil can be work anywhere). Rejecting it outright may lead it to slide into radicalism. [I believe since I wrote this piece Turkey has elected a somewhat less secular government].

Both viewpoints have some validity. These two positions also demonstrate that the Turkish question is a thorny issue. Meanwhile, religion has been propelled to the very heart of EU policy. Whatever side wins, there will likely be important religious ramifications either way. It is clear that the European Union can no longer be theologically analysed simply through the premillennialist and anti-Catholic prisms. The purpose of this brief essay, then, is not so much to discuss alternative theological approaches to the EU, but rather, simply to highlight how there are other important theological issues to consider when seeking to analyse the European project from a Christian perspective.

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