Is it appropriate for Pope Francis to accept the Charlemagne Prize?

Pope Francis visits the European Parliament in Strasbourg in November 2014 (AP)

As role models for a 21st-century pope go, our ancestor Charles the Great falls short of the ideal: a womaniser and warlord, he was also somewhat intolerant when it came to interfaith matters, having 10,000 Saxons put to death for refusing to abandon paganism. As his grandfather Charles Martel also had a rather straightforward approach to Islam, I can’t imagine the younger Charles would have been so keen on the whole interfaith thing.

He was, however, a firm believer in European unity, so long as he was the one in charge, which is how his name came to be attached to the Charlemagne Prize, an award given out every year to an individual who has promoted European unity.

Most of the early founders of the “European project”, the post-war idea that eventually evolved into the European Union, were Catholic -– German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the Italian Alcide de Gasperi and the Frenchman Jean Monnet were all motivated by Christian Democrat values to want to end conflict in Europe. Many were inspired by Benedict XV, the pope who in 1914 tried and failed to stop the bloodshed. De Gasperi, Adenauer, Monnet, as well as other founding fathers Robert Schuman and Paul Henri Spaak, were among previous winners of the prize, given out in the city Aachen.

Almost all the European founders came from bilingual areas of western Europe; indeed, most of them came from within Charlemagne’s empire, which covers modern-day France, Germany, the Low Countries and northern Italy. Likewise this year’s winner, Pope Francis, whose family came from Piedmont, in the very north of the country.

Francis is a great advocate of peace and brotherly love, but it is surprising that he has accepted an award that is so nakedly political, especially as the EU faces next month the first vote by a member state on leaving. It is one thing to promote “European unity” in the abstract, but this award explicitly promotes the cause of the EU, as can be shown by its recent winners, among them Donald Tusk, Herman Van Rompuy, Angela Merkel and, in 2002, “the euro”. Sure, from deep within Charlemagne’s empire the euro might have appeared to have promoted unity, but for Greece’s huge numbers of unemployed youths it probably does not seem that way.

Many, many British Catholics oppose our membership of what strikes us as a hugely risky attempt to create a superstate, despite such ventures normally ending in disaster; we know that the bishops both on the continent and in this country overwhelmingly support this venture, but it seems odd that the Holy Father should so openly take one side in a controversial political matter.

After Charlemagne was crowned emperor in 800 his superstate eventually fell to pieces, with East Francia becoming Germany and the western part of the empire France. Until the time of Hugh Capet in the 10th century the kings of the Franks spoke German. But eventually they adopted the Roman tongue spoken by the natives of Gaul, which became French. Yet such was the cultural similarity between what we would now call French, Germans, Dutch and (northern) Italians that for the Greeks, Persians, Indians and others they were all “Franks”.

That is partly the problem with the EU: it worked fairly well when it was just the Six – that is, a Frankish confederation –but it has overextended itself and absorbed too many foreign lands. This month, as part of its attempt to get the increasingly authoritarian Turkish government to be its border guard, it agreed to allow Turks to have easier access to the EU, despite its government failing to fulfil many of the criteria it had set. Charlemagne and his grandfather must be turning in their graves.

This will not end well, and when posterity comes to view those involved, the Charlemagne Prize will hang like an albatross around the neck.