Making Your Mind Up
As with much of the wider population, many Christians remain unclear as to how they will vote in the June referendum on EU membership. Some are strongly committed to leave or to remain but most are probably still making their mind up. Sadly much of the campaign is focussed simply on claims and counter-claims about the consequences – usually narrowly economic – of leaving or whether remaining is a denial of our national sovereignty. How might Christians go about thinking through the deeper issues involved in deciding whether to stay or to go?
Returning to a Grove booklet I wrote nearly twenty years ago to revise it for the referendum campaign I was struck by how different the situation is today – the EU has almost twice as many countries in it, most of its members share a single currency which in recent years has teetered on the brink of collapse, the free movement of peoples is a much more contentious subject than it was in the 1990s. And of course above all we now each have to decide whether or not we wish to continue participating in this unique, evolving political organisation that has helped bring 70 years of peace to Europe and which we have participated in for over 40 years.
Should I stay or should I go?
In deciding how to vote it is important that we recognise that we are answering a different sort of question from that at general elections but, as there, we also need to keep front and centre the test of what it means to love our neighbours and how our vote can serve the common good. That means not deciding on the basis of what is best for me personally (usually understood in simple financial terms) or even for the UK alone but to look at our personal and national good in the context of international society and the importance of good relationships. It also means trying to step back and take in the bigger picture both historically but also in terms of the present nature and likely future development of the EU. At least three broad areas require serious Christian reflection and evaluation in discerning how to vote.
First, as regards its form, the EU is an international legal and political entity based on treaties between national governments. This means considering a Christian attitude to the role and limits of nations and national identity and the dangers of empire as well as consideration of the principle of the free movement of peoples and how it relates to our sense of belonging and place of national borders. Second, the EU also has motives and aims which shape its ethos. Here Christians must evaluate how it has assisted in moving Europe from war to peace, whether and how it has enabled solidarity both within Europe and between Europe and the poorer parts of the world, and whether, particularly in relation to economic life, it is driven by our contemporary idols in the Western world and, through the Euro and austerity, serving or undermining human flourishing. Finally, as the EU is best viewed as a political community it needs, from a Christian perspective, to be assessed in terms of how well it serves the pursuit of justice and whether its political structures are – or can be - representative of its 500 million people and whether they uphold the principle of subsidiarity which seeks to respect local and national governing structures and non-governmental forms of social life.
In the light of all these issues a number of arguments on both sides need to be rejected by Christians but, after exploring each of these areas, I believe it is possible to sketch out potential Christian arguments for each side of the debate focussing on these issues, often neglected in the wider political debate.
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.
Standing Calmly at the Crossroads?: Debating and Deciding
Over coming months, Christians need to find ways of bringing a distinctive contribution to the debate in terms of both substance and style and raising more fundamental questions about the sort of common life we seek in both the UK and the EU. Above all, perhaps, they need, as the stakes are raised by politicians on both sides, to recognise that while of great significance, the decision on June 23rd concerns not an ultimate but a penultimate question. Whatever the outcome, as Ascension-tide reminds us, sovereignty ultimately lies in neither Westminster or Brussels but in the crucified and risen Christ.
Those interested in exploring the issues in more detail can find further discussion in my new Grove booklet which is supported with further information on the Grove website. It is available in electronic form (as a PDF) now, and print copies, which can be pre-ordered, will be despatched from 9th May.