The EU referendum – which way to vote?

I walked the Camino across the northern Spain last autumn, from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. I made many friends along the way. We walked as English, French, Italians, Spanish, Belgian, Dutch, Czech …and we walked as Europeans. We walked with Americans and Japanese and Koreans and Indians and Chinese … sharing our continent with people from all over the world who had been drawn to share our history and our landscape. The citizens of Navarra, Rioja, Castile and Galicia will I’m sure forgive me for saying that they represent not just Spain but a continent that until seventy years ago knew best how to pull itself apart rather than pull together.

So you wonder why in the current debate I’m pro-Europe, so strongly in favour of staying in? I’m English, European – and a citizen of the world. I look out rather than in, I’d take my country out into the world, rather than putting up impediments and turning inward. (Brexit supporters would of course argue that once out of Europe we’re open to the world. And I’d argue that we might just not get noticed.)

I believe in trade without borders, and a continent open to migrants and refugees. But always consistent with one thing – that we don’t water down what it is to be British – our language, culture, traditions, our way of life, our moral compass. They are our contributions to the world – as other countries have theirs.

There’s a balancing act required, and it’s that outlook I want to see influence policy. Begin with an open mind, and an open door. There may have to be boundaries, as the Syrian refugee crisis has demonstrated. Some crises may seem all but insoluble. But they will not find final resolution unless we have that open mind.

And to take another key issue in the EU debate. Don’t close your borders (physically and metaphorically) and then build bridges into the air, not knowing if they will find resting-places on another shore. It’s those ‘bridges’, as proposed by Leave campaigners, not least the trade deals which in the Leave imagination will be easy to set up, that worry me.

I want to see us walking and travelling and talking and trading as English, Welsh, Scots, Irish – as Europeans – as members of a world community. Much will be at stake on 23rd June.


The Pope and the Emperor

This subject is a bit of a minefield, and I may tread on toes as well as mines…

The title of this post sounds like the old Investiture Contest revisited, with medieval Pope pitched against medieval Emperor. But before that, in 800AD, in Rome, the Pope crowned Charlemagne Emperor, and now  – a kind of role reversal – the city of Aachen, Charlemagne’s capital (all of 1200 years ago), has awarded this year’s Charlemagne Prize (given for contributions to European understanding) to the current occupant of the Holy See, Pope Francis.

One problem of course is that for many the papacy is a tainted source. Polly Toynbee (Guardian columnist in case you didn’t know!) for one: she took exception to the Pope’s comment that someone insulting his mother could expect a punch, in the context of freedom of speech and cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed, all in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. ‘Every religion has its dignity… In freedom of expression there are limits,’ had been the Pope’s response to a journalist asking him about the cartoons. ‘Punch’ may have been the best choice of word. But I wouldn’t expect the Pope to do other than argue for the dignity of his religion. Nor would I expect for a moment that dignity to be in any way enshrined in law, or even in convention. We need, on this as in so many things, to find a middle way between apparent opposites.

For good measure there’s this, going back 400 years, from Shakespeare’s King John (Toynbee keeps good company):

‘Thou canst not, Cardinal, devise a name/so slight, unworthy and ridiculous/To charge me to an answer, as the Pope.’

Vituperation against the Papacy would fill many volumes.

On the other hand… Pope Francis has been a powerful advocate for compassion at the heart of the Christian message, and has broken ranks with the old hierarchies in a remarkable way. There’s much I may not support or agree with, but I’m on his side.

I was reminded of his work in the slums of Buenos Aires, when archbishop there, while watching David Beckham’s TV documentary, For the Love of the Game, which follow Beckham round the world playing a football match on every continent. In Buenos Aires it’s a priest who works with disadvantaged youth who helps Beckham set up the match. There’s a remarkable and radical worker-priest tradition with the Catholic Church, especially in South America.

Back to the Charlemagne Prize. The citizens of Aachen would have had in mind the Pope’s address to the European Parliament just over a year ago, when he encouraged MEPs

‘…. to return to the firm conviction of the founders of the European Union, who envisioned a future based on the capacity to work together in bridging divisions and in fostering peace and fellowship between all the peoples of this continent. At the heart of this ambitious political project was confidence in man, not so much as a citizen or an economic agent, but in man, in men and women as persons endowed with transcendent dignity.’  (Source: The Economist.)

And also the Pope on the European refugee crisis: ‘Who has wept for the deaths of these brothers and sisters? The globalisation of indifference has taken from us the capacity to weep.’

The Economist reminded the Pope that creating strong job-creating economies has also to be a part of the European project. I’d agree – jobs and wealth creation at an individual and national level are an integral part of man’s dignity. We shouldn’t disparage man as an economic agent.

But the Pope’s vision, for man and for Europe, is one I’d share.

I’ve tried to tread lightly through this minefield, where politics, hierarchies, dogma, personal faith and experience, and much more, are all confounded – more maybe a battleground than a minefield, where everyone has an opinion, and some opinions are held with a partisan passion. And I’ve probably failed.