The question of Britain’s relationship with the EU is rapidly becoming the most pressing question of our time—and perhaps the most pressing question for our national life for several generations, certainly since the end of the Second World War. Yet Christian leaders seem to fall into one of two traps—either saying something partisan which alienates one side or the others, or saying nothing at all and leaving a vacuum.
It is therefore with some trepidation that I make these observations, though I am in the interesting (and possibly unusual?) situation of appearing to have social media friends on both sides of the argument, so that whenever I do post comment online, there is interaction between the different viewpoints, and quite often it is helpful and enlightening.
I begin by citing an assessment of the two ‘sides’ of the argument as set out helpfully by Andrew Goddard in his Grove booklet on the referendum—which still bears reading.
It Hurts To Go Away: A Christian Case To Remain
We should stay because the EU’s vision, shaped by Christianity, has led it to much good for its members and more widely. The proper response to difficulties in relationships is not to walk out but to work at them and influence others for the good by being present. The UK has modelled this through the EU after initially standing apart and we should persevere in that commitment. EU membership recognises the value of international co-operation and the need for many political questions to be addressed at a trans-national level. The UK and other nations benefit from our involvement in institutions working for justice. These bodies can never be as representative as local and national political structures but the EU ensures all nations are represented in its deliberations and respects their different histories and perspectives. Its commitment to subsidiarity gives a powerful basis for sustaining such distinctiveness.
To leave would diminish our input in conversations and decisions which will inevitably impact our lives and would isolate us from structures which bring us into regular political contact with our nearest neighbours. It would give credence to erroneous views, especially that national sovereignty is inviolable, and risk fuelling nationalistic or xenophobic attitudes. Voting to remain does not mean accepting the Euro or all other recent developments. Rather, it means being committed to working with our neighbours to seek our shared common good.
It’s Impossible To Stay: A Christian Case To Leave
We should leave because the EU, despite Christian elements in its vision, and past successes for example in relation to peace, is now failing and damaging members and others. It is increasingly captive to contemporary, particularly economic, idols as seen in the Euro, and is developing characteristics of an imperial project which do not adequately respect national integrity. Given its history, the UK is well able to discern and to alert the EU to these trends but attempts at reform have largely failed. Subsidiarity, for example, is honoured in word but not action as EU competences extend across so much of our lives. Particularly since the EU’s expansion, the possibility of representative political authority structures has diminished. There is even less—and far from sufficient—common identity uniting us and we should not seek to engineer or impose such an identity.
The principle of free movement of EU citizens denies the importance of our locatedness and does not do justice to distinct national identities. It is no longer enabling solidarity but increasing tensions and, as with other policies, leads to an unjustifiable preferential option for the EU rather than other, poorer, parts of the world. Brexit, though it will have costs, opens the possibility of creatively rethinking and reconfiguring this negative dynamic to enable the creation of a better situation not just for the UK but for the EU and wider world.
It is worth noting that, whilst some of these two perspectives might seem to draw on standard economic or political arguments, in fact they are rooted in Christian theological perspectives which are explored throughout the booklet.
There are two main things to take away from this pair of positions. The first is that the case for full membership of the EU is complex and finely balanced, and involves considering a wide range of issues. Anyone who suggests that answer is obvious and clear is fooling themselves. The second point to note is that there isn’t actually a ‘magical’ Christian answer to the question, and if only we paid attention to these particular Bible verses, we would see the Christian answer more clearly than others. The EU is not the ‘greatest human dream realised’ and I think it is particularly unhelpful when Christian leaders seem to idealise/idolise the EU in this way. But neither is the EU the end-times beastly conspiracy for world government from which we must ‘come out’ (Rev 18.4).
Britain’s membership of the EU involves a whole series of major issues, some in tension with one another, and on each of these issues Christian theological reflection has a range of things to say. This is not a failure of Christian theological thinking; I don’t think it is ever the goal of faith to argue for one, single form of government, and Christians have had to live in all sorts of political contexts and had to learn to live faithfully within them. Jim Memory, who teaches on European Mission at Redcliffe College, sums up the main issues under five headings of identity, migration, freedom, democracy, and economy. (You can listen to his summary of these on the Redcliffe podcast 12c starting at 28 minutes in.) Christian faith and theology does have something important and distinctive to say in each area—but these distinctive don’t automatically add up to produce an answer to the kind of ‘in/out’ question that the referendum posed.
In the moment we are now caught, there is a temptation to think that ‘something must be done’ and so we seize on whatever ‘something’ comes along, and I can’t help thinking that having a citizen’s forum falls into that category. The Christian faith is distinctively committed to believe in truth and memory, not least since the central act of Christian worship is to remember the one who was and is the true and faithful witness to God. I thinking about Britain and Europe, it seems to me that there are several important things we need to remember which are all too easily lost in the frenzied arguments of the present moment.
The first is to continue to remember the origins of the impulse for integrated economic cooperation in the destruction and chaos of the Second World War. I thought it extraordinary to witness last week, 80 years on, the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier apologising to Poland for the Nazi atrocities. When we visited Wroclaw in southern Poland last year, we learned that not only were 3 million Polish Jews murdered in the gas chambers, but so were 2 million non-Jewish Poles, leaders in politics, business and education, in an attempt to decapitate the nation and turn them into a docile slave state. Wroclaw itself had been the East German city of Breslau, and survived intact until April 1945, when Hitler named it Fortress Breslau and in response the Soviets destroyed half the city by bombing in one week. When it was occupied, 95% of the German population was expelled, and it was repopulated by Poles from Lodz expelled in turn by the Soviets. Most of us in the UK are detached from these realities; when we were there for a long weekend, on the next table to us was a man bringing his mother to visit the city for the first time since she had been expelled in 1945. This forms an important part of the historical background and continuing impetus for European economic cooperation.
The second is to remember the real democratic deficit that has existed in the UK in relation to our membership of the EU as it has now developed. A critical moment in this was the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, which renamed the EEC as the European Community, reflecting the major step towards integration beyond merely economic considerations. Three of the European nations (France, Denmark and Ireland) held referenda prior to their own ratification of the treaty, but the UK did not, despite arguments (for example, by constitutional historian Vernon Bogdanor) that the delegation of decisions constitutionally made in the UK required agreement by referendum.
The converse of this is the third important thing to remember—the string of abject lies put about by the UK press about Europe, including many promulgated by Boris Johnson when working as a journalist both in Brussels and in the UK. The extent of these is so remarkable that the European Commission in the UK has created a special web page, listing all the myths and offering corrections to them; it is worth scrolling down the page to see this extraordinary list (I estimated about 700 examples). What is particularly serious here is that not only did Boris Johnson contribute to these lies, he has continued to do so as recently as July this year, when he falsely claimed that EU regulations were forcing UK producers to package kippers in a particular way—when the regulation came from the Uk Food Standards agency. A Christian concern for truth means that we cannot simply discount this or see it as a poor means to a good end (even if that is what we believe the ‘end’ to be).
This has an important practical implication, in that it becomes much harder to assert that the 2016 referendum demonstrated the ‘will of the people’ when there have been so many lies about the relation between the UK and the Europe Community over so long a period, quite apart from the big lie about £350 million a week on the side of the bus. Even those involved in the campaign cheerfully admit that the vote was won on the basis of a series of lies! But Christians have a distinctive concern about truth and lies, since one of the major characterisation in the New Testament of God is that he is true and the source of all truth, and his primeval cosmic opponent the Devil is the ‘father of lies’ (John 8.44). A failure to provide full and accurate information was enough to void the result of a recent referendum in Switzerland, but the failure to tell the truth has had a seriously corrosive effect on all political life, and particularly around the question of the European Community, over recent years. That should worry us.
The fourth major issue concerns the referendum itself. It was called by David Cameron primarily to resolve an internal issue in the Conservative party, and as an ‘in-out’ referendum it was grossly ill-conceived, since there are several ways to be ‘in’ (in or out of the Schengen open borders area? in or out of the Euro?) as well as a range of ways of being ‘out’ (in or out of the EFTA, the customs union, having a ‘Canada Plus’ relationship, or WTO rules for trade?). It was a little bit like asking whether we should paint the room green or ‘another colour’, and when the vote was, by a very close margin, ‘another colour’, thinking that the question was settled and we could go out and buy the paint. This is reflected in the coining of the term ‘Brexit’, a word coined by Peter Wilding, who now regrets the term, and he had all but forgotten its origins himself until it was seized on with gusto by the main Leave campaign. The repeated use of the word achieved two things: first, it simplified the debate into a binary choice between two clear alternatives; and secondly, it then polarised both the debate and the nation into these two camps
One major flaw with the referendum was the lack of a higher than 50:50 margin for decision. Even your local golf club has a better system for revising its constitution; setting a 2/3 or 3/4 majority threshold for constitutional change is routine, since that takes into account the possible bias of those members who don’t vote, the long-term consequences of change, and the changeability and vacillation of those who do vote. It was pretty clear from the beginning that the very close margin didn’t actually represent the views of the population as a whole:
What has been largely ignored are the 12.9 million who did not vote. Had the democratic process been that of Australia where voting is compulsory, the polls indicate the result would have been to Remain from day zero, and would still be Remain (see no2brexit.com and businessinsider.com). Of course, there is a criticism of the non-voter but, for various very good reasons, some were reported as simply not able to vote.
And of those expressing a view, ‘Remain’ has been the consistent though marginal majority view ever since. None of that settles the decision about what we should do, but it completely undercuts the claim that the referendum ‘demonstrated the settled will of the people’, or that we should ‘just accept the outcome of the referendum‘ and act on it. Robert Peston argues that referenda of all kinds sit with difficulty within the UK’s constitutional configuration of democracy:
What was always outrageous, a constitutional horror, was that Cameron should have so recklessly grafted on to the UK’s parliamentary traditions the idea that on the biggest and most complicated decisions – whether we stay or leave the EU, what’s the fairest system for electing MPs, whether Scotland should be an independent nation – direct democracy trumps centuries of parliamentary democracy.
So saying ‘that is just how democracy works’ is itself a problematic claim. Christians, of all people, should be able to step back from the verbal (and sometimes literal) fisticuffs on the outcome to reflect on these important concerns. Added to that, the Electoral Commission found that Leave campaigners broke electoral law, and the High Court judged that, had the referendum been legally binding (it was not in the way that it was set up by Parliament, despite personal commitments by party leaders) then it would have to be rerun.
My own view on the bigger question of our membership of the EU is still finely balanced. There are enormous economic benefits to membership, but the danger is that these benefits exclude those on the outside. The EU itself can appear to make claims of offering cultural and economic salvation—but so can nationalist language. The Bible does appear consistently to envision differentiated nations in the world—but it never makes the identity of the nation state absolute. And the EU commitment to absolute free movement of people can have economic benefits and provide opportunities for individuals. But its effect is highly destructive on both the receiving and the sending communities. If you don’t feel the impact of migration on your community, listen to this painful account of Spalding, an area that does, when Romanian is the most-heard language on the high street, and local culture and practices have been destroyed by the dominance of the migrant community. In the wrangling about the outcome of the vote, the question raised at the time of the sense of anger and marginalisation felt my many in communities that voted to leave appears to have been forgotten. At the other end of the ‘free’ movement, countries in the East who recently joined the EU have experienced cultural and economic devastation. Romania already had serious economic, social and political problems, but
Mass emigration has only compounded the problems. One notorious example is the healthcare system: tens of thousands of Romanian health workers now practise abroad, including 3,775 for the NHS, leaving Romanians in severely understaffed and underfunded clinics.
The migrants are usually the young and active, whose energy and idealism is therefore lost to Romanian society, economy and politics. Right now, it is badly needed. Any emerging political force that is serious about improving the situation must find ways to stop this exodus. The 400,000 Romanians in the UK are a great loss for Romania, above all.
On the overall issue of membership of the EU, there isn’t a clear way forward that would gain a clear consensus. Recent YouGov polling suggests that remaining as we are is the most favoured response, but also the most divisive. Moving to membership of the Customs Union appears to be the best consensus option; a ‘no deal’ departure is the least favoured.
But perhaps the biggest concern of all is the way that the ‘Brexit’ question has both been created by and has accelerated the sense of out political system as a broken mess. It is like a tyre lever, which has been needed because the tyre was flat and needed changing, but when used clumsily has not replaced the tyre but has broken the whole wheel. Last night’s Channel 5 programme by Jeremy Paxman ‘Why are our Politicians so Crap’ didn’t mince its words about the problem we are now in: in a recent survey, 70% said that they thought our politicians are not honest (with only 9% saying they were); 71% think our politicians are not trustworthy (against 9%); and 63% don’t think that our politicians are doing a good job.
Everything is political, but politics isn’t everything. I think that a Christian perspective needs to move beyond the arguments about a particular outcome here, and instead focus on the serious consequences of our broken political system. But it needs to do that with a wider perspective in view. To return to the comments of Jim Memory in his talk about the issue:
We are constantly being told that the EU referendum is the defining political issue of our generation, and potentially a turning point in our history as a nation. That might or might not be true, but whatever our political perspective, but as Christians we believe that Jesus Christ, not politics, is the hope of the nations. The earliest Christian confession, ‘Jesus is Lord’, wasn’t so much a statement of faith, but a defiant rejection of Caesar. For Christians, Jesus Christ, not secular political power, is our ultimate authority. He is Lord, and his sovereignty should be the controlling paradigm for reflecting on life, the universe and everything, even the referendum.
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?