Elspeth Wollen has written an article about her recent visit to Brussels to learn about the EU and Quaker witness in Europe.
Reflections on the Brexit Study Tour 26 – 31 March 2019
Quaker diplomacy at the heart of Europe was how Andrew Lane, director of the Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA), summarised the role of the team at Quaker House, Brussels, on the first morning of the special ‘Brexit’ Study Tour. With thirty participants, this was the largest tour run by QCEA and was timed to cover the day the UK was to leave the European Union after over 40 years of membership.
We had come to learn more about the work of the EU in the current political context, to reflect on European cooperation and to be together to witness against the separation, isolation and hate crime that is on the rise across Europe. Leading our sessions and outings were Andrew Lane and Martin Leng from QCEA, and Maud Grainger, Woodbrooke’s Faith in Action Tutor.
A talk entitled ‘Borderlands’, by a local Friend, covered the turbulent history of Western Europe where most borders are quite recent and even now borders, states and languages are not totally aligned. We were prompted to think about frontiers and identities: how do we see, and name, ourselves and ‘others’?
In his introduction to the EU, Martin reminded us of its origin in the Schuman Declaration (1950) that aimed to integrate the coal and steel industries of Germany and France following the Europe-wide devastation of World War 2. The idea was to make a future war between the countries of Europe impossible. It is often forgotten that the EU developed primarily as a peace project; later the six founding countries extended their cooperation to other economic sectors. While visiting the European Commission, we were privileged to see the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to the EU in 2012 for advancing reconciliation, peace and democracy in Europe for over six decades.
The preparation at Quaker House, and presentations by guides at the headquarters of the Commission, Council and Parliament, gave us an excellent understanding of the roles of these three institutions and how they work together.
We learnt that the Commission, the EU’s civil service, is a collegiate body whose 28 commissioners are independent of their member states. It proposes legislation (and the budget) but cannot pass laws. The legislative process is shared between the European Parliament – currently 751 MEPs directly elected by their citizens - and the Council of the EU – ministers from each EU country who are authorised to commit their governments. Commissioners, including the President who serves for 5 years, are voted on by the Parliament, which can refuse a name.
It was exciting to see inside the debating chamber, or ‘hemicycle’, where MEPs have their assigned seats, arranged in eight broad political groupings. Their election within member states by proportional representation means that minority parties are represented: prior to the recent election the UK had three Green Party MEPs (now seven), one of whom is a Quaker. Smaller countries are over-represented in numbers of MEPs e.g. Malta has 6, UK has 73, to encourage more powerful states to listen to weaker ones. Therefore, the ability to compromise and willingness to cross political groupings are vital – for that reason negotiations are likely to be politer and more constructive than in our own parliament!
Just a short walk from the EU Commission with its colourful flags outside (28 at the time of writing), is sited Quaker House: home of Brussels local meeting and of QCEA, founded 40 years ago to bring a Quaker vision of peace and human rights to Europe and its institutions. With only 6 staff and 200 active supporters, the work and witness of QCEA is impressive.
Olivia Caeymaex explained how QCEA seeks to bring a new approach to the daunting security challenges that Europe faces today. In recent years, the EU has been increasing its military spending and rhetoric. QCEA offers an alternative: its new publication, Building Peace Together, is a comprehensive ‘toolkit’ of workable, non-military initiatives to address conflict prevention and resolution in a sustainable, nonviolent manner.
Quaker House offers a safe space in which sensitive discussions can take place in a non-judgemental atmosphere. This ‘quiet diplomacy’ enables decision-makers, who might not otherwise have met, to come together and to speak off the record.
Kate McNally described how QCEA brought young adult Serbs and Croats together over several days (they ended up friends) and spoke about a unique pilot project, ‘Helping the Helpers’, that supports volunteers suffering trauma through their work with asylum seekers and refugees.
QCEA has published a detailed and thoroughly researched Human Rights Programme Report on ‘Child Immigration Detention in Europe’ (updated version Sep. 2018).
Their latest campaign, ‘Choose Respect’, aims to counter anti-migrant hate speech, which is increasing across Europe (including in Britain since the Referendum). This is essential work ahead of the European Parliament elections, in which right-wing ‘populist’ movements look set to make significant gains. (See around europe issue 380 for how individual Quakers can get involved.)
We had a presentation on The Council of Europe (not to be confused with The Council of the EU), from which the UK is not withdrawing. This body, with 47 member states, is responsible for the European Convention of Human Rights which protects our fundamental freedoms. QCEA is one of the international NGOs (non-governmental organisations) with an official role within The Council.
On the final morning of the Study Tour, gratitude was expressed for all we had experienced and for the work of QCEA. As one participant said, whatever the UK’s future relationship with the EU, “We have in Brussels, in QCEA, a light that is shining and will continue to shine in Europe…as a channel into Europe and an expression of that feeling of a European identity.”
Friends, QCEA needs our help: money (it’s struggling financially); active supporters; subscribers to its newsletter around Europe and awareness raising in Meetings, so that it can continue to ‘speak truth to power’ in these challenging times.