Sunday, 24 March 2019

Before the Monument of Reformation in Geneva, 70 Years On


There is a place in Europe where Oliver Cromwell, who became the leader of a short-lived republic after the victory of parliamentary forces in the English Civil War, and István Bocskai, who received a crown from the Ottoman sultan to become the prince of Hungary following an armed insurgency against the Habsburgs, appear side by side. The fact that the said place is the Reformation Wall in Geneva does not mean, however, that the only thing connecting the two men is their Protestant faith. It is telling that the monument honouring an English and a Hungarian politician who both fought for popular self-determination at the opposite fringes of Western European civilization stands in Switzerland, a country well-known for its deference to the will of the people as well as its commitment to independence from the rest of the continent. 

In fact, the monument brings to mind striking parallels between the politics of the Reformation and Europe’s current state of affairs, in which England has voted to renounce the supranational authority of the EU in a popular referendum while Hungary is entangled in a protracted dispute with EU leaders over divergent concepts of European integration and of the rule of law. Indeed, the parallels are so striking that Cambridge history professor Brendan Simms did not even need the Geneva Reformation Wall to compare Brexit to the establishment of the independent Church of England nearly 500 years ago. In the best analysis I have recently read on Brexit, the author argues that the Leave campaign’s wish to reclaim sovereignty from Brussels was similar to Henry VIII’s act of secession from the purportedly universal authority of the Roman Catholic Church, while both events formed part of a general trend of ideological fragmentation in Europe. 

Brexit's Lady Jane Grey moment

At a time when Brexit appears to be in jeopardy, it is important to remember that the consolidation of the English polity as a completely autonomous legal order took several generations, repeated attempts at Catholic restoration and a civil war led by puritans like Cromwell - while Hungarian efforts at achieving self-determination have had to be reconciled with exigencies of outside political forces ever since Mr Bocskai.