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Czechs romanticise cultural Christianity

Interview with Petr Kratochvil, director of the Institute of International Relations Prague. Interviewer: Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska.

January 11, 2018 - Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska - Stories and ideas

What has been the role of the Catholic Church in European integration?

The relationship between the Catholic Church and religious communities in the European Union has always been very ambiguous. Because, on the one hand, the founding fathers of the integration process were all Christians, predominantly Catholics (Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi), but at the same time the EU evolved partially in a continuous struggle with the churches. The debate about having God mentioned in the preamble to the constitution was the point where this struggle became very visible to the public. And while the EU has not been particularly friendly towards churches in the past, in the last ten years, the EU has been opening up a dialogue with religious communities. Not only with the new Muslim communities all over Europe, but also with the traditional religious groups.

But some kind of dialogue between the Catholic Church and the EU has been going on for decades and today, it is already rather complex. In Poland, people might have a different impression due to the public discourse of the government, but in general I would say that the edges are becoming softer now and the dialogue is more fruitful and more intense. The visibility of the religious communities across the EU is growing. Look at the aftermath of terror attacks in London and Manchester: Muslims, Jews, Christians were praying together and holding hands. Suddenly, the idea of religion being visible in the public is again – at least under some circumstances – acceptable in the EU.

Why did you focus your work on the Catholic Church and not, for example, the Protestant Churches?

For a number of reasons. One of them is because it is always easier to explore a clear hierarchal structure, as in the Catholic Church, whereas in Protestantism you have a multiplicity of independent actors, autonomous communities with complex relations. Another reason, which I think is even more important, is this long-term positive assessment of the integration process by the popes. If you look at any pope, starting from the 1960s onwards and up to the recent ones: John Paul II and Benedict – all of them have been extremely positive about the integration process. Of course each has a specific focus: John Paul II talked about Eastern and Western Europe coming together and Benedict talked about the soul and spirit of the continent. But the underlying message is similar.

Even if you look at opinion polls, the Catholic populations in the EU were, historically speaking, much more pro-integration than Protestants. That started to change a bit recently, but historically Catholics were much more EU-friendly. Perhaps it is related to the universalist idea of a single Church (καθολικὴ ἐκκλησία), and also the EU having a similarly universalist mission. In a sense, they share a common ethos.

How do you evaluate the influence of the Catholic Church on debates about the migration crisis in Europe? The Catholic Church seems to be a bit divided these days.

Exactly. The paradox lies in the fact that those members of the episcopate in the Czech Republic as well as in Poland who are the most conservative and who historically always backed papal pronouncements, suddenly turn into the fiercest critics of the Pope. Our Primate of Prague, Dominik Duka, recently said that the Pope’s views on refugees are private opinions and you, as a Catholic, do not have to agree with them, which is a diplomatic way of saying “I, as archbishop of Prague, don’t agree with the Pope”. So the rift is real, deep and growing, because if you look at the Catholic Church in our region – not in Italy or in the countries where parishes are opening up to refugees, the Church has unfortunately taken the anti-refugee, nationalist side, while still claiming their position is rooted in Christianity. The real question behind all this is: Is Christianity a conservative movement, or a radically open – even revolutionary – one?

What is the influence of religion on politics and society in the Czech Republic? It seems to be such a secular country.

That is true, but something strange is happening here. Some social theories say that at the time of crisis, any political community looks backward, to certainties of the past. It might be renewed nationalism, but it might also be religion. Strangely, even in a very secular society, like the Czech one, which is probably the most secular society in the world, people still look back to the idealised and romanticised Christianity, a sort of cultural Christianity. People do not really go to church, do not even believe in God, but some have recently started publicly saying that they are Christians. This, of course, does not mean that they pray to Jesus, but that they do not like Muslims. A typical example is the law adopted by our parliament a few years ago, which established Good Friday as a state holiday. It was a very controversial move because it is a Christian holiday. Is Good Friday a free day in Poland?

I don’t think it is…

So we are more Christian (laughs). The parliament adds a note to every law, explaining why it is being adopted. Interestingly, in this case the lawmakers stated in the note that our Christian identity is under attack by other identities and proclaiming Good Friday a state holiday is meant to strengthen our identity. Which is absurd, right? Because less than 20 per cent of people belong to the Church and less than five per cent go church regularly. And yet, we suddenly turn back to the past and say that we are Christians. It is fascinating, isn’t it? But somehow it works. Therefore, I would answer your question by saying that churches are not really that important in influencing moral decision-making (when it comes to divorce, abortion, contraception), but in a cultural sense, religion plays a role of the epicenter of cultural resistance to the new, the fluid, the strange, the unknown.

How would you evaluate the influence of the Catholic Church in Poland or Ireland, societies which are much more religious than the Czech Republic, and where the role of the Church has not always been positive?

The question is what exactly we mean by the influence of the Church. Typically, the answer, even by Church representatives, is socially conservative. So it is not really, as the Pope would have it, about helping the poor. Because you might say that helping the poor or refugees is also part of the influence of the Church, but usually what we mean, and what the Church means by its influence, is fighting against divorce, fighting against same-sex marriages. These issues have somehow replaced the true Christian mission, which is loving your neighbor and helping the needy. Instead, it is now about forbidding someone from doing something in moral terms, an obsession with questions of (sexual) morality.

In some societies this creates a huge division, but the Church is losing the fight everywhere, all across the continent, even in Poland. Take the example of Spain and same-sex marriages. Of course, the Church was against it, but in the end it lost and it gave up. Ireland is another good example where the Church had to publicly state after the referendum that “alright, so our resistance to same-sex marriage was probably mistaken or misunderstood by the public and we should at least use a different strategy”.

In Poland, this reversal has not happened yet, but sooner or later it will. An interesting opinion poll was recently conducted in all four Visegrad countries. The first question posed was “Do you think that the EU defends progressive values in your country?” and the second one was “Does Russia protect the traditional values in your country?” Surprisingly, Poles were more positive about the progressive values protected by the EU and less positive about the traditional values protected by Russia than Czechs. Because of the domestic clash with the Church, they do not need to externalise these issues in the way Czechs do. For this reason, domestic struggle and internal polarisation is more pertinent in Poland, but in the end the Church will lose, and then it will have to change not only its strategy, but also its focus. The Pope has spoken about it time and again, but the Church in our region does not want to listen to him.

Last year at the Prague European Summit, we talked about the rise of populism in Europe, the rise of nationalism. Now, after the elections in France and the relative defeat of the Tories in the UK – it was not a total defeat, but somehow…

Not a win…

Do you think this trend is reversing?

I want to make a distinction between the developments in the elections on the continent and in Britain, because I think that especially the socio-economic processes are different there. Speaking about the continent, I agree with your assessment. First, we thought it was what we Czechs call the “first swallow in the spring”, only an exception to the rule. By now, however, it is not one swallow, it is a whole flock – we have Austria, the Netherlands, France, and Italy.

I think there are two explanations to this, which are complementary. First, in some countries the mainstream parties have taken over the agenda of the populists or extremists. In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte is a very good example of that. He was struggling with Turkey and boasting about standing firm, defending the homeland against the Turks and he won the election. But in the long term, this strategy is self-defeating. If you look at Poland, the Law and Justice has taken votes away from the far right extremists, but at the same time, it is pushing the whole spectrum to the extreme right.

Another strategy is the one by Van der Bellen in Austria or Macron in France, which is reaffirming liberal, pro-European beliefs. It can work, but for that you need a specific socio-economic context. This is what is missing in Britain and that is why it is different. As you see with the swing towards Labour, I think Brexit was all about migration and socio-economic underdevelopment of some parts of England. And it seems to me that once you remove the EU from the equation, which was accomplished after the referendum, people move away from UKIP and conservatives to Labour, because in the end, it is socio-economic issues they are worried about.

So in that sense I would say that populism in Europe is a sign of socio-economic problems rather than cultural ones. Even “othering” of refugees, the attacks against Muslims all across Europe, racism against Poles in UK – cultural othering – is an expression of socio-economic troubles, along the line of “I’m losing my job to some bloody foreigners”. And it is not really racist per se, but the consequences lead to increased levels of racism. I think we have to come back to discussing the growing socio-economic inequities, the growing problem with the NHS in Britain, but we have the same discussion about free tuition in universities, health care, and pension systems all across the continent – these are the real issues that are behind the surge of populism.

So Brexit was a symptom of the problem. What do you think will happen to Europe after Brexit? Is it going to walk the path of deeper political integration? Or shall we rather expect a two-speed Europe and cherry picking when it comes to integration?

I would say: both. Now we have a two-speed Europe, or even a multi-speed Europe, because there are countries that are in the Eurozone – or in Schengen area – and those that are not. Even after Brexit is completed there will still be countries like Denmark or Sweden. At the same time, we can expect a deeper integration within the Eurozone. The key issue for countries like the Czech Republic and Poland is how permeable the bridges between the two are, because there is a danger of over-institutionalising the Eurozone. There are already ideas floating around about having a parliamentary assembly especially for the Eurozone or having institutional meetings of the Eurozone, and that might create unbridgeable differences. If countries like Poland or the Czech Republic decide to adopt the Euro, it might be quite difficult to jump on the bandwagon because of these institutions. And that is the great worry for myself and for countries like ours. There is no doubt about the ongoing deeper integration of the Eurozone and the growing role of the Euro summits, but what countries like the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary have to ensure is that when or if they decide to become Eurozone members, it will be doable. I would even agree with some Eurosceptics who point to this weakness.

What do you think should be done?

I am not against deeper integration of the Eurozone. You cannot prevent other countries from integrating more deeply. Multi-speed Europe means that at any time you can change the speed to a higher gear and join the others. So we must ensure that this is not prevented and that insurmountable hurdles and barriers are not erected for those who want to increase their speed and join the core. At the moment in the Czech Republic there is no political will for quick adoption of the Euro. But we have to ensure that once the political climate and the public perception changes, we are prepared. If a treaty change becomes more topical again, we have to ensure it does not prevent us from moving from one gear to another.

Do you think that fundamental reform of the European Union is necessary to keep it as a structure?

First of all I think that a fundamental reform of the EU is now easier after the Brexit decision, because the internal balance in the EU shifted substantially. Before, even though the Eurozone was the core, the non-Eurozone countries were still a substantial coalition spearheaded by the UK that you had to take into account. It is no longer the case. There are countries in the Eurozone, those that will soon join the Eurozone and a few countries outside of the group, like some Scandinavian countries and the Czech Republic. But there is no big coalition of countries outside of the core. So if the core: France, Germany and their coalition of the willing will choose deeper integration, the other countries will not be able to block them. So again I come back to the original answer: the only thing we can do, in the absence of political will to join in immediately, is to ensure that we can join later.

Another important development that took place in the last months was the introduction of a visa free regime with Ukraine. What do you think its effect will be?

I think we will stop where we are. The two issues that were important for Ukrainians are the free movement of people (not only free movement of labour, mind you!), and deeper cooperation within the Free Trade Area, both of which have been agreed upon. These two things are where Ukrainians wanted to get and I think there is no chance in the foreseeable future for the Ukrainians to move on, i.e. bid for membership. Given the atmosphere in the EU,  referenda would be held in a number of countries, such as Austria and The Netherlands. The Dutch even rejected the association agreement, so there is no chance for any of the Eastern Partnership countries to join the EU in the next ten years.

So you think that EU enlargement is over? Is it dead?

Basically yes. There are some countries in the Balkans – I mean Serbia – that the EU will accept in the years to come. But Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine – even though they are well prepared at the moment – have no chance of joining the EU, and of course the same goes for Turkey. So yes, I think we are at the end of the European enlargement process, which is in a sense sad, because in spite of all the problems related to it, it was the most successful policy of the EU in the last fifteen or twenty years. But it is coming to an end, which strengthens the questions you have asked before about internal consolidation and deeper integration. The energy that was directed towards Ukraine and Syria, is now being reshaped, the neighbourhood is securitised, and once the dangers are contained “outside”, all the energy will go inwards again – into deeper integration.

This interview was conducted during 2017 Prague European Summit. 

Petr Kratochvil is the director of the Institute of International Relations Prague.

Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is editor with New Eastern Europe.

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