“Relationships should be at the centre of our economic system”
“The Christian teaching is that we need to control the power of central governments”, says economist Michael Schluter, co-author of manifesto ‘Confederal Europe: Strong Nations, Strong Union’.
BRUSSELS · 03 MAY 2017 · 17:28 CET
What kind of relationships would help create a fairer Europe? That is one of the questions behind the document just issued by think-tanks Relational Thinking and Sallux.
Written by Paul Mills, David John Lee and Michael Schluter, “Confederal Europe: Strong Nations, Strong Union” offers twenty specific actions and a “relational” approach that would help citizens feel more in control of their future.
“Clearly, not only in Britain but also in France as well as in Netherlands, Germany, Hungary, Greece and Italy, there are very substantial minorities who are uncomfortable with Europe”, Schluter told Evangelical Focus.
The leaders of the European Union need to learn from the dissatisfaction and involve everyone in building a project in which real “cooperation” between people and nations is promoted on all levels of society.
The values found in the Bible are key to understand the transformation that these relationships can bring to whole societies, the former World Bank economist and founder of Relational Thinking says.
Michael Schluter responded to questions of Evangelical Focus. You can listen to the interview at the bottom of this page.
Question. You are one of the three authors of this document that has just been released. What led you to write it?
Answer. We started from the perspective that a nation or a federal union (or any kind of political settlement), depend on underlying relationships, as does the economy. We thought there had been a lack of analysis of the relationship issues that were brought about by the whole European project.
We are particularly concerned that, we believe, Europe is now very deeply divided. Between people who want a federal Europe, a single government across Europe, closer integration of the countries; and those who feel that it has gone too far and want to know wind it back. In Britain we had a Brexit vote which was 52% to ‘exit’ and 48% to ‘remain.’
In the French first-round of the election, we saw over 40% of the population voting for parties which were talking about holding a referendum about leaving the EU. So, clearly, not only in Britain but also in France as well as in Netherlands, Germany, Hungary, Greece and Italy, there are very substantial minorities who are uncomfortable with Europe.
So, for Europe to be a major force in the world in the future, it needs to be united. It cannot be flip-flopping, going this way and in that way, between ‘exit’ and integration in each election for the next thirty years.
We need to find a framework that 80% or 90% of people are happy with.
Q. In the document you admit that Europe is facing an “existential crisis.” A solution to this, you say, is to understand Europe as a “convergence peoples, not a mere welding together of the political and financial structures”. What would that mean in practice?
A. We believe that the way the European Commission has gone about trying to create a united Europe is through and institutional approach. You have a single Court of Human Rights, you have a single currency (the Euro), you try to create institutions that will make people cooperate.
But this is not addressing the underlying question of people’s values. In a sense, it is not possible to build a strong and united consensus and cohesion, if, for example, your education system is teaching everybody to be more and more individualistic. And if your economic and business arrangements are teaching everyone to see themselves as individuals: individual consumers, individuals savers, individual pensioners, individual householders. In every area of the economy we think as individuals. And in our education system it is about my skills, my talents, my exam results against yours.
Everything is around the individual. That individualist culture is all the time undermining the idea that we should give away up some of our freedoms in order to cooperate with other people and have closer relationships with them. Therefore, the whole foundation of the European enterprise is flawed in our view.
Q. On one side, you are saying there is a need for more relationships between people, and even between nations. At the same time, you would not support the idea of “federation” that comes out of the EU Lisbon Treaty of 2007, but prefer the notion of “confederation”. What is the difference between these two concepts?
A. The idea of federation is that you have a single government at the centre which has most of the power, like in the USA, or, to a lesser extent, in Germany. Power is primarily at the centre, and you have single person, the President, making a lot of the decisions.
A confederation structure gives much more power to the provinces, or the national government, if we speak of Europe. They come together for a whole range of purposes. It may be around defence, or migration, or a shared view of economic policy. Around how to promote one another’s products in the world, how to get mutual investment in one another’s countries, etc. But major power is not handed over to the centre and therefore there is not a huge democratic deficit, where people do not know who they are electing.
In Europe, we are talking about 400 to 500 million people being under a single government. As an individual, as a family, as a community, as a city, you cannot influence such a government, because it is too big, too huge, and it is just not accountable.
We believe that the Christian teaching is that we need to be accountable and we need to control the power of central governments or the king, if you like, in terms of what the Bible teaches. To do that you need democratic structures that do not get too big.
Q. Would such a confederal Europe receive more support from the people living in the different countries?
A. Yes, definitely that is what we are suggesting. The logo on the front of our booklet, in a sense, has the whole story. It shows the circle of stars, as you have in the EU, but instead of making all the stars yellow (and therefore, in a sense, the same), we have each star with a different colour. We want to respect the identity, the culture and the unique contribution that each country can make to Europe, but we still want the countries of Europe to be in the form of a circle so that there is a strong signal that we are seeking to cooperate together.
You could say: ‘Then no one is going to be happy.’ Because the people who want to have a single Europe, a single army, a single government budget, who want to set taxes from Brussels for everybody in Europe and take away decisions from national governments… Those people will not be happy because confederal Europe is too weak for them. On the other hand, those people who want to set up their own country, without reference to anybody else, they will not be happy either.
But we believe that the vast majority of people across Europe would be a lot happier with this much slower approach to European integration, allowing each state to retain its identity and its distinctives, than trying to push everybody together; in a way each country the opportunity to make their own laws.
Q. The document mentions the ideas of liberty and equality, and you also highlight the importance of fraternity. These are actually the French republican values. As a Christian, how would you develop this sense of ‘fraternity’?
A. I think it is a matter of developing a culture where relationships are the centre of your thinking. That’s not just a social culture, but an economy, a political system and an educational system.
The problem is that our economy is very much based on an individual, and we learn from the economy very much to think as individuals. When we assess companies, we do it entirely on a financial basis: do they give enough profit on a quarterly basis to satisfy the individual investors?
We suggest that we need more of a stakeholder approach, what is called inclusive companies. The interest of the companies, the suppliers, the investors, the costumers, the communities, the regulators, the governments, are all reported on by these big multinational companies. They have to disclose the necessary information, there is the chance to weigh that information properly.
We want a school system where the emphasis (as it is in Finland, and they are by the way the most successful education system in the world) is similarly built on more of a focus on cooperation and mutual support and help than on individual achievement.
Now, we believe these ideas have strong Christian roots, because Christianity is a religion about relationships. The Trinity, our understanding of God, is a relational understanding of God. Before the material world came into existence there were relationships between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in eternity. And then, Jesus coming to Earth, is about God coming to have a closer relationship with humanity. And the Cross, at the heart of Christianity, is not a political or military event but it is about forgiveness and reconciliation, another relationship language.
Even eternal life is not about me as an individual going somewhere, but is about joining a community in heaven, with Christ. Heaven is described as a feast, a banquet. A banquet is about great food, yes, but it is also about great conversation, it is about fellowship, community and communion.
Christianity is a faith that puts relationships right at the centre of everything. And we are saying that we need to put relationships at the centre of our economic system and the way we run it, at the centre of our education system, at the centre of our social system. With families and communities having much more responsibility, and at the centre of the political system in Europe.
Q. Another idea in your document that related to the Bible is the concept of “debt-free growth”. Why is this an important issue?
A. Firstly, to answer your question directly: debt creates many relationship problems. A verse in Proverbs, in the Old Testament, talks about the borrower being the slave of the lender, and of course that is true on a personal level but is also true on a national level. For instance, in Greece people feel they are slaves of Germany and have come to hate Germany because they feel they have lost all of their freedom. 60% of their young people are unemployed but they cannot do what they want to do, which is leave the Euro and devalue the currency.
So, all that young people in Greece (and by the way, in Portugal, Italy and even Spain) are unable to improve their economic situation because they are tied into the Euro. At the same time, the estimates are that Germany benefits about 160 Billion Euros every year through the Euro, because the country has a weaker currency than what it really should have.
You have a huge transfer of resources from Southern Europe to Northern Europe through the Euro. It is a very subtle mechanism, most people do not understand it. I am an economist, I used to work for the World Bank, and it is all about how currencies and currency flexibility are key to employment and growth.
The other problem with debt is an intergenerational problem. In Britain, we are borrowing a 100 Billion Pounds a year, at least. That means that my children and grandchildren are going to have a less good life than I have, because they are going to have to pay off that debt and the interest of that debt.
You cannot just abolish that debt overnight by waving a flag or flicking your fingers. That debt is a chain, a form of bondage. Our children are going to inherit this terrible debt which those of my age have incurred to give ourselves a better life than I would have had otherwise. So, it is unfair in the relationship between older and younger people.
Therefore, as Christians, we believe debt is fundamentally unhealthy and should be written off every seven years. That is the biblical teaching on debt and we think it makes a great deal of sense.
Q. You mention several ideas that have to do with finances and the economy. But if we talk to people that are not experts, it seems that not many of us really care much about these issues. How can we understand how much economy affects our daily lives?
A. Well, you could read Karl Marx! I think it does not need a great deal of thought to realise how much economic life affects us on a daily basis. Think of the difference in the lifestyle between the top managers of the big companies who earn maybe a hundred times more than the cleaner or the person that works at the checkout of the supermarket.
Actually, the difference between the salaries of the people who are running our biggest supermarkets in Britain and the person on the checkout is at least 500 to 1. That means the person at the checkout must work for 500 years to get the salary of the chief executive. In addition, they have a different form of transport to the office, they live in different kinds of houses, they go on different kinds of holidays, they have different opportunities for their children, different styles of education… It is all determined by these economic variables.
The fact that across the Southern Europe now there are at least a 40% of young people that are unemployed, is due to the way the economy is being run.
So, if you are a parent and your children are unemployed, you should be very interested in what is happening in the economy. Because that determines whether they have to stay in your house, whether they can get married, whether they can afford to have children, or when they will have children. These things really matter people’s wellbeing.
But even more fundamentally, these things impact on the relationships with our neighbour, and therefore, indirectly on our relationship with our God. God is interested in fairness across society, God minds about whether the way we deal with our economic affairs is fair or whether it is not fair. The Bible has so much to teach us, and so much to say about this fairness in economic affairs.
Q. Does your document comment on the regions in Europe where strong national feelings are growing, like Scotland, Catalonia or Flanders? These feelings have been there even before the financial crisis exploded.
A. I think there is a tension for us as Christians in this area. We recognise the value of decentralised government, of giving all regions a greater sense of autonomy and the ability of making decision for themselves. And on the other hand, we value the relationships that have gone back over centuries where there has been cooperation and healthy relationships between regions and nations within countries.
We find ourselves a bit torn between the value of identity and the value of love and neighbourliness that are both important. My own view is that this ‘sub-nation nationalism’, if we can call it that, is driven partly by the fact that people do not have a strong sense of extended family and a strong sense of community and being part of a city-region in the way they used to have.
So, people start to look for identity somewhere else. If your family has broken up, your marriage has broken down, etc., and you ask: ‘well, who am I?’… Especially if you are unemployed and you cannot take your identity partly from your work, then where do you find your identity?
As Christians, we find our identity fundamentally in our relationship with God. But if you come from another background, you may look for identity in your nation, or in your region or sub-nation. That can then cause enormous tensions with other people. Because you want to have more control over your own affairs, and you do not value the relationship you have with your neighbours in the same way.
So, I think it is a difficult question for Christians. But I think one needs to start to look more at the underline drivers of relationships. What makes me feel or believe or identify with who we are, and how we influence those drivers of identity.
Q. Finally, how do you think people across Europe could use the “Confederal Europe” effectively? Do you think non-Christians can find this resources useful?
A. We have very much written this not only for Christians but for non-Christians as well, because we look for ways Christians can helpfully contribute to public life. And that means we must engage with people that are not Christians, because Christians in Europe are now a minority. Not always a small minority, but still a minority.
We base the whole relational thinking approach to politics, economics and education on the relational values of the Judeo-Christian tradition. We are appealing to this long tradition of European history that goes back at least one thousand years (an indeed longer), which argues that love of God and love of neighbour are central values to the well-being of society. And this needs to influence the way we think about economics, finance and business.
Many people of all faiths, and no faith, are very supportive of this relational emphasis. We are appealing here to a very wide public.
I think it could influence Europe on a number of levels. On a national level, in Britain, because we certainly would like to see political parties (whether of the ‘Brexit’ or ‘non-Brexit’ variety). We think these ideas are much better than ‘Brexit’ or much better than simply go towards a federal union. We would like to see political parties adopting it and we would like to see Christians in political parties to press for it to be considered and discussed.
One person from Finland, when we launched it, said that he had found it encouraging to read because it gave him hope for the future of Europe, and he had not been able to find this anywhere else. We would like people to read the summary and then discuss it with friends, send the internet link to contacts and ask them to read it.
We would like people to start to think about their personal lifestyles from the perspective of relationships, and how it would apply to the organisation where they work, be it a company, a hospital or a prison or a school.
So, it is partly a national agenda, partly an organisation agenda, and partly a personal lifestyle agenda.
You can also go to some of the websites, like the RelationalThinking website, the RelationalSchools or the RelationalResearch. We hope people can see all this and start to think how they can adopt it to their own situation.
LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW:
ABOUT MICHAEL SCHLUTER
Michael trained as an economist before working as a research fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute, and economics consultant with the World Bank in East Africa.
He and his wife Auriel have 3 married children, and 12 grandchildren. Michael is now a social entrepreneur and has launched six charities whose work includes international peace-building (Concordis International), alternative finance (Citylife) and social policy (Credit Action). In 1994, Michael launched the Relationships Foundation; he is also on the board of Relationships Forum Australia. He is co-author of The R Factor (1993), Jubilee Manifesto (2005) and The Relational Manager (September 2009) and has contributed to a number of other books looking at social issues from a relational perspective.
He is an experienced speaker who has addressed audiences all over the world, and was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s New Year honours in 2009.