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Jonathan Chaplin is the Director of KLICE
The decision to be made by British voters on 23 June on UK membership of the EU is of momentous significance for the political, cultural and global destinies of the UK and Europe. Amidst the torrent – already engulfing us – of statistics, opinion and image-construction designed either to reason, entice, scare or bamboozle us into voting ‘in’ or ‘out’, Christians should look for measured, broad-ranging and theologically serious reflections on the central issues. They should not be content with self-serving appeals (‘what will membership do for the church?’) or focus on single-issues (‘can EU immigration be slowed?’) and should resist and expose generalised polemics misrepresenting the UK’s relationship to the EU or casting unfair aspersions on opponents.
Some such resources of theological reflection are already available . For example, see Ben Ryan’s excellent Theos report, A Soul for the Union. Or browse the intriguingly varied menu being served up by the Reimagining Europe blog hosted by the Church of England and Church of Scotland. See also the Jubilee Centre’s informative and insightful Referendum Discussion Paper series, and an earlier piece ‘Thinking Relationally for Europe’s Future’. Thechristiansforbritain.org site is forcefully putting the case for leaving . And, for a rhetorically vigorous and robustly conservative Anglican Eurosceptical view, there’s always Archbishop Cranmer.
In the months leading up to the 2015 general election, KLICE offered a dedicated Election 2015page offering reflective resources on the choices then before us, the centrepiece of which was a special Ethics in Brief series assessing the main parties standing in the election. Between now and June, we will publish a short Ethics in Brief EU Referendum series, supported by extended issues of KLICE Comment, of which this is the first. As in 2015, KLICE won’t take an official position on the vote itself (although there’s no point in hiding that I personally am fully persuaded of the ‘remain’ position ). The goal of our series will be to offer substantive Christian reflections that may inform readers’, and churches’, own deliberations and decisions on the core issues at stake.
What are those core issues? Already we are plunged into controversy, for there are deep divides in the public – and the Christian – mind over what are the decisive considerations that should guide our thinking on whether the UK should remain in or leave the EU. How should we even construe the decision?
Here is one suggestion. I propose we proceed by posing the simple but fundamental question, what is the EU for? What type of entity is it that we are voting to leave or remain within?
The EU is a species of the genus ‘political community’. Today, the nation-state is still the most common species of that genus but there have been many other variants in the past (city republics, principalities, empires) and there are many new ones today (local/regional governments, NATO, the UN). The EU displays certain state-like features (permanent bureaucracy, legislative competence, representative fora, etc.), but still contains crucially important inter-governmental features (those operating by voluntary inter-state agreement), as in the structure of the Council and the unanimity provision for treaty revision. It is a unique hybrid, which is why it can be genuinely difficult to make sense of.
The EU is a political institution. But by identifying it as a political thing, we are also saying that it is not some other type of thing. It is not a cultural community, whose identity is given by a common historical culture (political institutions like nation-states don’t necessarily have that). We could say that ‘Europe’ is a cultural community (or family of cultural communities). But we are not voting on 23 June in favour of or against ‘Europe’ in this sprawling civilisational sense. If we leave the EU we will still remain fully a part of 'Europe', albeit distanced from its principal political expression.
Nor is the EU a spiritual community, unified by a shared ‘soul’ in the sense of a common religious faith accorded constitutional recognition. This is true even though we can rightly affirm that at the heart of the historical identity of European culture – part of its family DNA – is European Christendom, in all its glories and pathologies. At its inception, the EU's founders agreed to respect the existing church-state arrangements of member states. Thus the French retained laïcité, and later the British kept Anglican establishment and the Greeks reserved constitutional pre-eminence for Orthodoxy. Founders also designed the early European institutions with a deliberate posture of impartiality towards the diverse religious traditions of member states. That, I think, is an appropriate posture, since no merely political entity can legitimately purport to operate as a spiritually unified community.
It is the case, however, that the original vision of the EU certainly reflected the profoundly Christian political aspirations of many of its leading founders (as Ben Ryan reminds us in his Theos report). These were lay Christian statesmen, mostly Christian Democrats, who sought to erect a structure open to those of all faiths or none, ensuring that all are free to engage in lawful democratic action pursuant to their own political visions (a freedom now legitimately exercised by Muslim citizens among others). The EU is ‘secular’ in this quite proper sense, but is not inherently any more or less ‘secularist’ or ‘secularising’ (causing more secularisation) than any other European nation-state. In my own judgement, it is less secularist than France and less secularising than the UK .
Nor, finally, is the EU an economic community in the sense that a mere market is. This may seem puzzling since one of its former incarnations was named the ‘European Economic Community’ (EEC). But from the outset it was always a political community. A 'common market' could only be created by political acton. It was thus hugely regrettable that, during the 1980s and 1990s, with the relentless push for ever-deeper economic integration, it became overwhelmingly driven by economic concerns: a process strongly endorsed, we may recall, by the UK government, which championed the Single European Act ushering in the massively influential (and inherently centralising) Single Market. That deleterious reductionist outcome made it very difficult to maintain community-wide solidarity behind more important political goals at a time of rapid expansion. This development was lamented and pointedly critiqued by a group of senior European Christian politicians in a powerful report from 2004 entitled The spiritual and cultural dimension of Europe, which should be compulsory reading for any theologically serious debate about the EU.
This narrowing of the EU’s horizons has been one contributory factor in leaving today’s UK referendum debate dominated by economic considerations – a result routinely underlined, and thus accentuated, by the media. In my view, just as in the Scottish referendum, this economic debate will prove inconclusive: there will be a statistical stalemate.
Yet even if it could be demonstrated that membership will benefit Britain economically more than going it alone, that fact alone should not decide the issue. Evidently a certain level of secure economic resources is presupposed if a political community’s core political tasks are to be discharged; issues of economic capacity thus clearly matter to political goals. But the former should be kept subordinate to the latter.
This is because, in Christian political thought, a political community, at any level, does not exist to make its citizens rich (or to express or form a common culture or faith), but to facilitate their common pursuit of justice, peace and solidarity in the public realm. These are the unique tasks of the institutions we call ‘political’. They are the specifically political components of ‘the common good’.
Such tasks are demanding, ever-changing and complex and, of course, their concrete meaning is, in a healthy democracy, always contested. There are no off-the-shelf agreed meanings for UK voters to reach for as they approach 23 June. But there are abundant resources in Christian political thought and practise to enable Christian citizens, at least, to put flesh on them, as well as on what they imply for related goals such as liberty, subsidiarity, sustainability, stability or place. Christians then need to communicate them in terms that allow others to appreciate and engage with them in wider public debate (notice I didn’t say ‘translate them into secular language’).
This central claim about the unique tasks of the political community points to the key criterion for whether we should stay or leave. The question we will face can be simply put: has membership of the EU become a necessary institutional channel for British citizens and governments to discharge their political obligations to promote public justice, peace and solidarity, not only within their own borders but also among their nearest neighbours, and globally? Would leaving the EU jeopardize our capacity to fulfil those obligations, and thus be a morally blameworthy act? Or, on the contrary, has the EU now become such a significant obstacle to our discharging these obligations that it might even be morally blameworthy to stay?
Note a crucial implication in the way I formulate those questions. Christians should not frame their contributions to the debate in the insular and shrivelled language of the ‘British national interest’ – the staple diet of too much political talk today. Most Christians reject the secularist liberal assumption of the primacy of individual self-interest in national politics. They should reject the equivalent assumption in international politics. From a theological point of view, the compelling appeal of universal norms of justice, peace and solidarity does not stop at national borders (some of which are historically arbitrary anyway).
While governments do have a first responsibility for securing justice, peace and solidarity for those within their borders, they share fully in the wider-ranging duties of the community of nations for the international realisation of such goals. There should be no automatic primacy of ‘British national interest’ over the interests of other nations. Christians should thus be prepared to argue for positions which advance the international common good even at the apparent expense of their own national interests – as the Christian statesmen who founded the EU did with such courage and foresight.
But while the core question we face is simple to put, it isn’t simple to answer. Such an answer depends on an assessment, part normative, part empirical, of whether the most pressing issues of justice, peace and solidarity of our time have now acquired sufficiently transnational scope that they demand a transnational – and not just an intergovernmental – institutional response.
Obviously the UK already engages in a great deal of global intergovernmental cooperation via many international institutions and protocols and it could continue to do so outside the EU. So it would be unfair to depict the case for leaving the EU as a call for a retreat into British isolationism. The question is whether depriving ourselves of insider participation in the transnational capacities of the largest political association of our nearest neighbours, with whom we share many deeply-embedded political values, would substantially impede our ability to address issues of justice, peace and solidarity that now transcend the nation-state and that now press upon us relentlessly: the catastrophic refugee crisis; threats to national security such as jihadist terrorism or Russian chauvinism; technological threats to human personhood; structural deprivation; environmental degradation; regional and global peace-making, and so on.
Some will rightly claim that the EU’s inadequate and badly coordinated response to the refugee crisis, for example, merely reveals its current dysfunctionality. Indeed it does. But others would reply that, on the contrary, this is a clear case where more concentrated EU power (yes, in this case, ‘closer union’) is urgently required, in order to address a burning public injustice – one which, were European nation states to confront it independently, would leave hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable victims of terrible conflicts exposed to even greater danger.
Christians should thus frame the key questions in a distinctive way: not how to promote mere economic growth for its own sake, but how to garner the resources needed to alleviate structural poverty and exclusion in the UK and among our proximate neighbours; not how to limit the quantity of immigration per se, but rather what are the necessary conditions for the UK to exercise proper hospitality to those who come here to work or those seeking protection as refugees and asylum-seekers; not a defence of some abstract principle of ‘sovereignty’, but rather what distribution of (many kinds of) legal competence (across all tiers of political community) best enables us to discharge our specific duties of justice, peace and solidarity in the face of compelling challenges such as these.
In some cases this will argue for more EU powers, in others for more subsidiarity (and on far more important issues than sausages and balloons ). Yes, membership of the EU certainly incurs a ‘loss’ of sovereignty in the sense of national legislative autonomy, but it also confers a ‘gain’ in the capacity to exercise effective collective political responsibility in the face of challenges like those listed. For what it’s worth, I have never been a fan of the obtuse and dangerously expansive term ‘ever closer union’. ‘Closer union’ is justified only when and if the clearly articulated imperatives of transnational justice, peace and solidarity demand specific extensions of Union competence – such as the refugee crisis.
The debate about UK membership requires patient, informed and detailed answers to these questions. And it is frankly appalling that we have been allocated a mere 17 weeks to consider them, a timeframe which might serve the government’s (and for all I know the opposition’s) short-term political interests but is not remotely enough to deliberate adequately on such a far-reaching national decision. But we are where we are and we must make the best of the time we have.
Obviously, the very way I have been framing the core question at stake clearly discloses my own leanings on the substantive question (in case you hadn’t noticed). The fact that I haven’t once mentioned the ‘deal’ just secured by David Cameron also tells you something about my own priorities. But we are not in neutral theological territory here where Christians can purport, piously and platitudinously, to stand above the fray and merely call for a ‘better debate’, leaving others to do the hard work of slugging it out. I hope many Christians, from all sides (there are not only two) will passionately weigh in to this momentous national conversation and, yes, while trying to raise its level, also put their theo-political necks on the line. That is what the challenge of Christian citizenship demands today. In the next months, we’ll be inviting three Christians to do just that in our forthcoming Ethics in Brief series.
 For some academic political theology on the question, see God and the EU: Faith in the European Project.
 So far this site contains only one substantial article, by Adrian Hilton. I can't resist noting that it was first published as aKLICE Comment during the 2015 election! No doubt more substantial pieces will appear soon.
 For some of the reasons why, see my contributions to Reimagining Europe here, here (from which I draw some material here) and here.
 On the European Court of Human Rights, by contrast, I would draw a different conclusion.
 For example, see here for a critique of the EU’s definition of subsidiarity, drawing on Catholic social teaching.
1. Ethics in Brief March 2017 - Ancient Laws for New Challenges: The Ten Commandments as a Critique of Inequality Mark Glanville
2. KLICE Comment March 2017 - Illiberal Liberals?
3. KLICE News March 2017.
4. KLICE award-holder and Research Associate organising conference at Aberdeen University on 'Joy and Prosperity'
5. Report of CORAB symposium available.