Facing deadline for constitution, E.U. debates Christian reference

Faith may have the ability to move mountains, but it’s not clear if it will be strong enough to budge politicians. With a deadline approaching to set the E.U. Constutition, a number of staunchly Christian European states are making one last attempt to insert a reference to Christianity.

In a May 21 letter to the E.U.’s Irish presidency, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Slovakia wrote that recognition of the Christian roots of Europe “remains a priority for our governments as well as for millions of European citizens. We therefore propose to pay further attention to a reference to the Christian roots of Europe in the existing text of the preamble.” Ireland also favors including a reference to Christianity in the constitution, while Greece and Slovenia have said they would welcome the idea.

The proposal also is backed by European Commission President Romano Prodi — and, not surprisingly, by the Vatican, which is not an E.U. member. The new moves are a source of concern for Jewish leaders, who note the failure last year of an attempt to insert a reference to the “Judaeo-Christian” nature of European history by the center-right Christian Democrat grouping in the European Parliament. The need for agreement on the constitution is especially pressing given the European summit — set for June 16 and 17 in Brussels — that is supposed to finalize the document. In the initial draft to the constitution’s preamble — prepared by former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing last year after months of discussion — the text included a reference to the “cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe,” but omitted Christianity and God. The draft proved problematic for many Catholic countries in the union, which at the time had only 15 members.

Since another 10 countries joined the union May 1 — including traditionally Catholic countries from the former Soviet bloc — opposition has grown to the secular character of Giscard’s constitution. Italy and Poland have been the principal instigators in recent moves to include a Christian reference. In its own national constitution, Poland refers to “both those who believe in God as the source of truth, justice, good and beauty, as well as those not sharing such faith but respecting those universal values from other sources.”

Such pressure from the new states has worried the largely Protestant states of northern Europe, as well as those with rigidly secularist traditions such as France and Belgium. One of the first to come out strongly against a Christian reference was Britain. “If we were to go down the road of making specific references to one religious tradition, we have to bear in mind other specific religions and references to them as well,” British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said at a recent meeting of E.U. foreign ministers. Roger Cukierman, vice president of the European Jewish Congress and head of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jewry, said Jews would “prefer no reference to religion at all, particularly if what was on offer ignored the Jewish contribution to European civilization.” “Jews have traditionally been strong supporters of the secular state,” Cukierman told JTA.

But even in Cukierman’s France — which has the continent’s largest Jewish community, but is perhaps the strongest bastion of European secularism — once-total opposition to a religious reference appears to be breaking down. Meeting last week in Dublin with his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said France was “not hostile” to an inclusion of Christian references in the preamble — even if, he said, the current text appeared “reasonable and balanced.” “I understand both points of view. Now we have to find a compromise,” Ahern reportedly said. France’s wavering probably owes more to political concerns than to a sudden surge of Christian faith.

With elections to the European Parliament set for mid-June, center-right parties such as Raffarin’s are aware of the threat from parties that push a strongly traditionalist, and sometimes extremist, perspective on the new Europe. Spain’s recent change of government has pushed it into the secular camp, but other European governments increasingly are worried by far-right parties utilizing Europe’s Christian heritage to gain votes in the upcoming elections. In France, in particular, much of that threat comes from Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front. But the governing UMP Party also faces a challenge from two “sovereignist” lists that call for slowing down European integration. All those parties also have rigorously opposed plans that envision adding Turkey to a future E.U. A principal plank of their opposition has been Turkey’s non-Christian character.

The Vatican also has not given up on providing a Christian reference in the constitution. Welcoming the entry of the 10 new countries to the union on May 1, Pope John Paul II said that “Europe should conserve and re-discover its Christian roots in order to be prepared for the great challenges of the Third Millennium.” As the deadline for finalizing a constitution approaches, the Vatican just might get its wish.