Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Otto von Hapsburg - a good friend

One of the more unexpected turns in my life was to end up on first name terms with the Crown Prince of the Holy Roman Empire. Otto von Hapsburg, who died on Monday was, like me, a Member of the European Parliament. Just occasionally the system of sitting people in alphabetical order for meetings meant that we sat alongside each others as "H"s.

We were both diligent attenders at the Friday morning sessions in Strasburg where agriculture and rural affairs were the staple diet and occasionally even crossed swords in debate. He and I vied for the title of the best annual attendance, which normally ended in a tie at 100%. On the one year that I lost my title bid due to an operation just two MEPs  (apart from immediate Labour colleagues) rang me to find out how I was - Otto and Ian Paisley!

I will not try here to write an obituary, but  simply remember him as a colleague. What really impressed me about Otto was that despite his title and - I assumed - wealth, he was prepared to put himself forward to election. He and his son had some fairly definite and democratic views about royalty which I found impressive and refreshing.

He loved, and was never cross about the constant retelling, of the urban myth that he once went into the television room in Strasbourg, was told that they were watching the Austria-Hungary world cup match and asked who were they playing.

Otto had a passion for the former Austro-Hungarian Empire of which he would have been the crown prince. He took a great deal of interest in the emergence of democracy in its former territories in countries such as Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia. I know that he was particularly upset as events unfolded in Bosnia. His interventions in debate were always well thought out and knowledgeable.

However it was his Christian faith which proved to be the bedrock of his life. He was, a Catholic, but I was touched that he took a great deal of interest in the faith and work of a youngish Methodist from the UK. We Methodists don't often understand how different and sometimes fascinating it is for European Catholics to discover that lay Methodists  can undertake roles such as preaching, pastoral visiting, even delivering communion. He took a great deal of interest in the monthly prayer breakfast though was rarely able to attend.

Towards the end of my mandate I joined Otto and other members of his family in planning a pan-European pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. They were keen that I continued with the project but I felt that the Methodist "one year rule" was a good principle to observe in the circumstances and so took no further part.

On several occasions I found myself - along with other Christians on the Parliaments left - voting alongside the Christian Democrats on issues affecting faith and family life. Otto was always very supportive about these minor rebellions, as were, incidentally, most of my Labour Party colleagues. On our final day in the Parliament he came over and said "Thank you for having the courage to bring God into our chamber" - which led to an interesting, but short ecumenical discussion on the presence of God. 

What I learned from Otto's example is that high birth and royal blood were no barriers to effective and democratic public service. He could have lived his exile from his beloved Austria as a society playboy like most other former royals. Instead he worked as any other citizen and made the best use of the democratic system of the European Union as it gradually emerged from both the second world war and Soviet domination.

Dying at 98 he clearly had what we call a "good innings", however during all that time he played well and gave  his time  and talents for others. A great man, a great European.


Robert said...

That was one royal who seems to have done something worthwhile. I always heard that Paisley was an extremely nice man on a personal level, despite his opinions.

Ian G said...

One of the interesting things about Ian Paisley is that everyone I have met who actually knows him, knows a very different person to the man as represented in the Media. His opinions and deeds are not as publicised and his sermons, available online, which are fundamentalist are not unchristian. Nor does he incite or condone violence against Catholics, but he does have a deep dislike of Roman Catholic teaching and theology.

Ric said...

My grandmother's family were from Galitzia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She told me that every night her mother would say a prayer of gratitude for Emperor Franz Josef and his decent rule. Otto was obviously a chip off the old block, and would have ruled the region far better than the Nazi and Communist despots who actually held sway.