'By doing justice to history, no one is excluded'

Article published on Feb. 20, 2004
community published
Article published on Feb. 20, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Bronislaw Geremek, former Polish foreign secretary, shares his thoughts about the place of religion in Europe.

Former Polish foreign secretary, Bronislaw Geremek is a key political figure in his country. A speaker at the very foreground of the negotiations between Poland and the European Union, he is also a specialist in the fields of Medieval History and Europe’s roots.

In this interview he casts new light on the argument for a reference to Europe’s ‘Christian heritage’ in the Constitution, insisting on the need to ‘do justice to history’ and to found a community based on inclusive values.

Café babel: In your opinion, what are the motives behind Poland’s desire to include a reference to Europe’s Christian heritage in the Constitution’s preamble?

In my opinion, Poland’s motives do not favour any religious group. Poland considers the EU to be a secular structure not a denominational Christian club. I believe that the real issue is not religion but how we see the future of the European Union. Even though the EU is neither a State nor a nation - it does have its own ‘demos’ -, it calls for the idea of a community in its Constitution. This confusion is due to the double function of the Constitution: defining the roles and capabilities of its members and institutions, but also refering to a community based on its history and its fundamental values. It is this principal that Poland would like to see written into the Constitution.

Has Christianity played a part in forming the fundamental values of Europe?

First of all, Christianity is part of Europe’s past. Voltaire himself, who did not care for God or religion, said that Europe is Christian by making reference to a community of faith and the culture of medieval Christianity. But the importance of the intellectual elites, the men of the Enlightenment and the concept of Reason must be underlined here. Therefore, in order to establish a basis for a European community in the Constitution, we must first do justice to history. At the moment not enough is being done in this area.

The controversy surrounding the inclusion of a religious, or spiritual, heritage for Europe at the heart of the Charter of Fundamental Rights or in the preamble of the Constitution is the product of a flawed debate. People talk about the contribution of the Ancient Greeks, the Romans and then move straigh on to the men of the Enlightenment. So, the Polish position should not be viewed as a denominational project but as a sensible bid for doing justice to the past. Aside from the historical argument, Poland also believes that a strong Europe is not possible without a community spirit based on universal fundamental values.

But isn’t the reference to a Christian heritage a source of exclusion for other religious groups?

Doing justice to history does not mean to excluding anyone. That is why we need to make clear the contribution of important Islamic groups from ancient times up to the present day. Mentioning Christianity’s role in the Constitution would not create a climate of exclusion. We must not forget that Europe is a community of Rights which depends on the acknowledgement of a shared history. The Constitution could well appear in national curricula across Europe. Imagine a classroom faced with this long juridical text; the pupils would need a spiritual dimension in order to stimulate some positive feelings about the Community they are a part of.

But the possibility of mentioning the influence of other religions in the Constitution is completely closed to public debate.

I have put forward my opinion to political leaders on several occasions… if it is not possible to tell the truth it would be better to make no comment at all. Of course, the Constitution is not literature but a few lines dedicated to the influence of other religions will prevent the creation of a weak document. I would say that more consideration of history and less political correctness is needed.

As a secular State, what has been France’s influence on this debate?

France, and Sweden, have refused to allow any mention of religious heritage because of this idea about the separation between Church and State. It is an old tradition in France and a relatively new idea in Sweden. The most important thing is to try to get past these difficulties so as to avoid conflict between the religious and secular camps which could damage future European relations. Both the religious camp and the secular one represent two different phases of Humanism: Religion and Reason have both contributed to the development of the concept of mankind’s dignity. Therefore, these respective viewpoints should be oriented towards mutual understanding and not conflict.

How could relations between the Churches and States work at a European level?

Article 51 of the Constitution talks about relations between the Union and different religious groups. It is extremely rich in content and introduces the notion of a necesasry dialogue between the Union’s institutions and representatives from religious communities. It is a decisive article for deciding the place of religion in the European Union. Yet the preamble is different, it is about showing respect for Europe’s past.

In Poland, how are the relations between the State and the Church organised?

Poland is a Catholic country whose percentage of religious participants is the highest in Europe. But since its Constitution was written, the Church and State were separated in order to give rights and freedom to religious authorities. Interestingly, the formula behind the Polish Constitution’s preamble could be useful in terms of the European Constitution because it refers to the fundamental values of justice, truth, liberty and beauty. It recognises that the origin of these values can be found in God, or can be founded on other sources. It is a universal basis for the recognition of all religions, without excluding agnostics.

Recently there have been numerous incidents surrounding symbols of religious identity, notably in France with the controversy over the Muslim veil, and in Italy with the presence of the crucifix in classrooms. Two synagogues were targets for terrorist attacks in Turkey. Could we say that religion is making a comeback?

No religion encourages hate but all can be used as instruments of hate. The cause is not religion but the arrival of new fears that appear as the world moves forward. I would have liked to see a debate concerning the issues of tolerance and a pluralist coexistence of religious attitudes rather than focusing solely on the domain of religion.

How would you define religious faith?

Historians don’t like defining things and I would prefer not to answer that question. I think that Marcel Gauchet’s work asks makes valuable points. He shows the relationship between the institutions in charge of religion and individuals. Human beings are free to behave as they believe is right according to their own convictions as long as they have taken into account the rules of behaviour established by the community. Whilst in practice there are many contradictions of these two points, they are a part of the nature of modern day society.