Speaking Truth to Power in Brussels
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th October, 2009
I spent most of the day at a seminar, just over the street for the European Commision’s Berlaymont Building, celebrating 30 years of existence of the Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA). In the early 1970s, soon after Britain joined the then European Community, a number of us Quakers living in Brussels — most working for the European institutions, but me as a journalist initially with Reuters and then freelance — decided that there deserved to be a ‘still, small voice’ of reason in the self-styled Capital of Europe, raising humanitarian and social concerns with the European institutions and with NATO, whose headquarters is in the same city. This is what Quakers historically have called ‘speaking turth to power’. It took us four years to persuade the wider Quaker community that this was an appropriate thing to do. Though the Religious Society of Friends (as Quakers are more properly known) had long had offices essentially lobbying the United Nations in both New York and Geneva, some Friends (notably in Norway and Sweden) were worried that we would be getting too close to mammon by embarking on a similar operation in Brussels.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, the ‘Scandinavian hesitations’ (as they became known) were overcome and we set up QCEA in 1979, initially on a very modest basis. Since then it has grown significantly (not always entirely smoothly) and has tackled such issues as conscientious objection, the treatment of women prisoners, sustainable living and peace witness. As we were reminded today, the origins of the project — and indeed of some of the European institutions — date back much further. Three hundred years ago, the Quaker William Penn — who went on to found what he hoped would be a peaceable kingdom in Pennsylvania — wrote a pamphlet while he was studying in France, at a time when the continent had been ravaged by decades of war, saying that what was needed was a sort of European Parliament, where people would discuss, not fight. Well, we now have one and for the past 30 years (coincidentally since the birth of QCEA), the citizens of the ever-expanding European Union have been able to vote directly for members of the European Parliament. I still hope to be among their number one day, then my own mission will be complete.