LAST WEEK the new Church and Society Commission of the European Council of Churches was launched in Brussels. It was addressed by Jacques Santer, the President of the European Commission, who talked about the contribution of the Churches to the enlargement of Europe. The event was more exciting than it sounds, for nobody seems able to capture the drama of European enlargement, and the potentially explosive element in the process - religion.
The prospect of Europe's expansion calls for some larger vision than European bureaucracy offers. In Brussels, I recalled John Keats's description of the moment that Hernando Cortez first glimpsed the Pacific:
when, with eagle eyes,
He stared at the Pacific - and
all his men
Looked at each other with a wild
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Keats imagines that unexpected moment when the world became suddenly much larger - when Europe discovered its Pacific coast. As old empires fell and new oceans became known, these Europeans knew their discoveries were providential. And that power of Providence was clearly Christian - given by the God of Isaac and Jacob, of the Creed and the Mass, of Castile and Aragon. His truths were regarded as irrefutable. His enthusiasm for the Spanish cause was indicated by their spectacular triumphs, and set at naught the horrendous human cost of their conquest.
Now a new extraordinary moment has arisen in Europe. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, Europe has a Pacific coast once more. But the feelings aroused by that vision are more complex than those which occurred to Cortez.
Our culture is unused to the idea of Providence, and responds more cautiously to the new European panorama. The European Union's response has been to offer the prospect of membership to a hundred million of Europe's poorest people, in 10 countries from Estonia to Bulgaria. Half the countries have begun the accession process, much the biggest being Poland. Beyond lie Ukraine, Belarus - and Russia. The larger project is for these states to be neighbours rather than members. The prospect of shaping a common civilisation, from Galway to Vladivostok, is breathtaking; the chances of success mixed; the consequences of failure alarming.
The banner of European enlargement is not marked "For Christ and Spain", but it does carry convictions of a sort. These are embodied in the programme agreed at the European Council in 1993. New member states must enjoy democratic institutions, which offer protection to minorities. They must also have created a functioning market economy, with the ability to …