QCEA needed more than ever

~~QCEA General Assembly member Peter van Leeuwen shares his view on QCEA’s role after the UK referendum on membership of the European Union.

The Brexit referendum resulted in a 52% – 48% decision that the UK will leave the EU. It is generally seen as a seismic event. In the last few days UK Prime Minister Theresa May has announced that she will start the formal process of withdrawal by March 2017. So, it makes sense to contemplate what Brexit means for QCEA.

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Swimming against the current. Credit: Brent David

To start with the conclusion, not a lot will change for QCEA. The environment in which QCEA operates will change, but Europe has already been changing in recent years, the Brexit referendum is just one of the most recent illustrations of that change. European cooperation for peace and human rights has been reversed or undermined, particularly since 2013, with the growth of EU military policy, a record number of far-right MEPs, and increasing anti-democratic tendencies by some governments.

The benefits of QCEA should be even clearer in this regressive environment, but there will be greater necessity to communicate this to Friends in Britain. In short: QCEA will go against the tide and strengthen ties between the UK and the continent.

So there will be a “divorce”

A divorce is usually preceded by a less than happy marriage, and Britain’s uneasiness in its marriage with the European Project can be traced back decades: the opt-out from Schengen borderless travel (1985, 1997), the opt-out from the Economic and Monetary Union (1992), the opt-out from the charter of fundamental rights (2007), the opt-out from most judicial and police cooperation (1997, 2014). Brexit could be viewed as an unfortunate next step in its disentanglement. It is more than likely that after the “divorce” a new economic and political relationship will be formed, but the shape of it will remain unclear for many years.

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Quaker values. Credit: Pauline Goggin, Ireland Yearly Meeting.

Brexit and Quakers have totally different scopes:

It is helpful to realise the very different focus between the process of Britain leaving the EU and the work of QCEA:

  • Brexit is about the EU, Quakers (including QCEA) are about Europe.
  • Brexit is about trade, red tape, migration, ‘sovereignty’, financial contributions, future economic cooperation, whereas QCEA is about Quaker values, such as peace, justice, human rights for all; speaking truth to power in the places where power resides, and enabling deeper conversations between the people that reside there.
  • Whilst ‘hard Brexit’ (leaving both the EU and its single market) may help the UK reduce immigration from other parts of Europe, Quaker concerns are about addressing the human suffering of countless people, fleeing war and oppression.

Europe is in need of Quaker work and values, perhaps more now than at any time in recent years. QCEA is small, but well connected, both in Brussels and to Friends across Europe. QCEA is already adapting its presence to meet the challenges of witness and reconciliation of the years ahead.

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Speak truth to power where power resides

With or without Britain, considerable power resides in Brussels. The EU will continue to be a highly important international organisation, and an important centre for Quaker concerns. For example, there are only two organisations in the world that are able to run a comprehensive peace support operation, the UN and the EU.

While QCEA directs its activities toward a number of centres of power in Europe, Brussels will continue to be the primary home to European institutions, including NATO, and also to the European arms-trade lobby, all affecting Quaker values and concerns. The advantage of the European institutions is that civil society has the RIGHT to have their opinions heard. Problems in our societies also need to be addressed directly. Engagement by citizens and civil society organisations will be needed to protect social, human rights and environmental legislation and to resist the rise of the far-right, preventing conflict spilling into violence and to speak to that of God in those who are spreading fear and prejudice.

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QCEA study tour – bringing people together

A European faith-based NGO

QCEA is a melting pot of European mindsets within our Quaker family. The number of Friends on the continent is small in comparison to Britain, but their combined cultures and thinking is crucial for discerning issues with a European dimension. The great advantage of QCEA is that it is not just a British NGO, but a truly pan-European one. Therefore it will not lose its right to be heard when it speaks truth to power. Now that the UK as a country will lose some other channels to influence decision making, at least British Friends through QCEA will not be impeded as they follow William Penn’s efforts to build peace in Europe.

The proverb “chacun son metier” (stick to your day job, schoenmaker blijf bij je leest, Schuster, bleib bei deinem Leisten) may help us, not to get entangled with the Brexit process, but focus our Quaker/QCEA efforts with even greater zeal on spreading Quaker values, and using our strong relationships amongst Friends across Europe, to have a beneficial impact.

Working with like-minded others

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Although Brussels as a power hub has attracted many civil society organisations, they remain quite small compared to the powerful financial, industrial and arms trade lobbies. For the Quaker agenda, QCEA has long since co-founded networks and umbrella organisations, in which it shares in the management and has its European Quaker voice heard: European Peacebuilding Liaison Office (EPLO, with currently 38 member organisations from 14 European countries), Human Rights and Democracy Network (HDRN, with 50 European NGOs), the European Network Against Arms Trade (ENAAT, 15 member organisations) and e.g. the recently QCEA-established European Forum on Armed Drones (EFAD, 15 NGOs).

Besides that, QCEA has recently shown that by clever interventions, it can take on a powerful lobby, e.g. to try to thwart attempts to divert public money to arms industry research. This first happened in 2011 (together with others), when a clause to allow “defence” research into the long-term EU research funds was taken out of the FP7 (framework program) for Research and Technological Development, and recently in 2016, when QCEA supporters made up the majority of participants in a public consultation on moving development spending to military budgets. In the coming weeks, QCEA supporters will follow-up on this advocacy and plead with their MEPs not to allow public money to be diverted to the arms trade.

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Parliamentarians from 47 countries meet at the Council of Europe, to make recommendations on issues like drones, political prisoners and gender equality.

Why QCEA?

Once the different focus between Brexit and Quakers/QCEA is realised, and knowing that there will be far fewer British people in European institutions through which to exert influence, QCEA’s added value for Friends becomes even clearer:

  • The place to speak truth to power, where power resides (European institutions, the arms-trade lobby, NATO), is mainly Brussels.
  • As a European Quaker NGO and part of Europe’s “civil society”, QCEA continues to have the right to be heard in/by European institutions, a right which purely British NGOs will lose.
  • As a purely Quaker NGO, it will remain an ideal vehicle for Quaker concerns to be advocated, whether directly to European institutions, or to other members within umbrella NGOs.

Going against the tide

When the result of the Brexit referendum may lead to a separation of peoples, and forms of estrangement, Quakers/QCEA should want to do the opposite, as they are interested in forging and strengthening links to enable common peace building in our countries and the world beyond. So we want to strengthen our engagement and have a common impact for Quaker values in Europe. It also remains crucially important to encourage links between our younger generations. To QCEA’s advantage, it maintains close ties with Young Friends all over Europe through the Europe and Middle East Young Friends, who already are represented in QCEA and give their input. When the continentals develop initiatives to improve cross-country understanding between the young generations (#Erasmus+, #FreeInterrail and other future initiatives) these should really remain open for British young people post-Brexit, in order to have their beneficial effect in the coming decades, whether or not Britain were ever to want to return as a fully-fledged participant in the European project.

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Quaker House Brussels, a space for dialogue, community and radical spirituality at the heart of the European quarter in Brussels.

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