Ian Ellis: Churches are seeking input into helping to shape the future of Europe

Westminster politicians often refer to ‘our friends and partners’ in the European Union and it certainly is in everyone’s interest that the UK and the EU do remain on harmonious terms.

Thursday, 12th August 2021, 1:19 pm
Updated Thursday, 12th August 2021, 1:23 pm
European Commission building in Brussels. It may be easier for the EU to progress its desired path without UK dissent, yet British influence is missed. The Conference of European Churches will prepare a submission for the European Commission as a contribution to the Conference on the Future of Europe

However, the enormous difficulties over Brexit, especially with regard to the Northern Ireland protocol, have instead created turbulence.

Lord Frost, while stressing the importance of maintaining good bilateral relations, has made it clear regarding the protocol: “We cannot go on as we are.”

Placing the matter in context, Lord Empey has aptly drawn attention to how Liverpool University’s Professor Pete Shirlow told a House of Lords committee that the total level of Great Britain to NI trade is equivalent to a mere 0.0008% of the EU’s gross domestic product, with only a fraction of that being at risk of seepage into the EU single market.

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The whole issue therefore begs for perspective. Temporary extensions to grace periods do give more time for more negotiations but there is now a truly pressing need to find a lasting resolution of the issue.

Yet, setting all of this to one side for a moment, how are our ‘friends and partners’ getting on without the UK?

While in certain policy areas it may be easier for the EU to progress its desired path without the UK there to object, it has been suggested that in significant ways the British influence is being missed in Brussels.

There is no doubt that British civil servants and diplomats are held in high regard beyond our shores and one can well imagine how, along with many British MEPs, they played a key brokering role in Brussels where the priorities of the different EU member states often compete vigorously.

At the time of the British departure from the bloc, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen commented to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle: “I’ll miss their pragmatism. It helped a lot. They were always very down-to-earth.” She described it as “a very emotional day”.

I don’t think she was just being polite.

In a joint article, academics Jonathan Faull (Kings College London), Piers Ludlow (LSE) and Laurent Warlouzet (Université du Littoral Côte d’Opale) have pointed to positive UK influences as an EU member state over the decades in a number of areas.

These included the shaping of the internal market itself, about which the academics say France and Germany at the time were “much more ambivalent”; the drive for enlargement, especially with new member states in central and eastern Europe; and the procedural modus operandi of the EU’s institutions.

Yet the academics also acknowledge the paradox of the way in which the UK had allowed its undoubted influences to be eclipsed by identifying as “the perpetual malcontent, the perpetual loser in the European system”.

Faull, Ludlow and Warlouzet rightly conclude that regaining positive influence within the EU will not be an easy task for post-Brexit UK.

Now, the EU itself has embarked on a year of citizens’ reflection on its future policies. This will be done in an extended process of dialogue with EU citizens through what is called the Conference on the Future of Europe.

The whole process was launched on May 9 and while the findings of the conference will not be binding they will be influential in the EU’s corridors of power in Brussels.

However, it is interesting to note that the influential Euractiv news website contributor Georgi Gotev has countered any view that Brexit could be leading to other countries leaving the bloc.

He writes: “On the contrary, the EU has become more resilient and even the Eurosceptic and far-right parties are either keeping a low profile or adapting by no longer advocating for their respective country to leave the Union. Their new mantra: work to change the EU from the inside.”

The churches also have plans to contribute to this Conference on the Future of Europe citizens’ dialogue.

The Rev Christian Krieger, President of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) – of which the Church of Ireland and the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches in Ireland are members – explained to me for this column that his organisation plans to approach the task in three ways.

First, in conjunction with Roman Catholic counterparts, CEC will be holding a meeting in Brussels to prepare a submission for the European Commission.

Second, CEC is calling on its member churches to contribute to the process through arranging discussions in their own countries.

Third, CEC will be organising a meeting of European youth to prepare input.

President Krieger remarked that he saw the future of Europe as having a broader reference than the EU itself, but he was “not sure that the [European] Commission will see it like that”.

He commented that since the Brexit referendum, the British member-churches of CEC “show much more commitment to work in Europe” and “are very aware that the UK is part of Europe”, adding that “clearly” the British churches could make a contribution to the Conference on the Future of Europe.

There is no doubt that, as the EU considers its future, the UK experience will need to be part of that reflection.

Canon Ian Ellis is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette

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