Saturday, 20 February 2016

17 Weeks 5 Days

That's how long we have before the EU referendum announced today.

My last blog was about the Twitter feed I've just set up to support a Christian case for remaining in the European Union, @Xians4EU. Under that banner, I've tried to pull together useful observations, commentary and reflection on the EU debate that I hope helps frame a Christian perspective, with some human interest now and then, and from time to time a dose of much needed humour and irony.

So what's to be said about the outcome of the EU summit from that Christian perspective? It's far too early to say definitively, and we have yet to see the small print. But here's my outline sketch.

Let's begin by accentuating the positive. It's very good news that there's an agreement at all because it wasn't a foregone conclusion. To get the twenty eight member states to sign it off called for a major collective act of the will. It wasn't only the Prime Minister who showed great stamina. Although I was one of many who didn't see the need to put ourselves and everybody else through this torturous exercise, I am greatly relieved that it has produced a result. It would have been unthinkable for David Cameron to come away having to campaign for Britain to leave the EU.

Secondly, let's be grateful that there is apparently so much goodwill towards the UK in Europe. Despite the long wrangling over migrant welfare payments, benefit payments to children of migrant workers, protecting the City of London from Eurozone regulation, national sovereignty and 'ever closer union', it's always been clear that the EU states view Brexit not just with sadness but with real alarm. I had expected that with a gun held at their head by us Brits (as it must have seemed to the others sitting round the table), we would be shown the door. But no. We should notice this fund of respect, and in some cases real affection, for Britain, and not exploit it or hurl it back in the faces of our European partners by voting ourselves OUT when they have (or at least think they have) conceded quite a lot.

Finally, let's recognise the provisions to safeguard what a majority of the electorate says it values in Britain and does not want to sacrifice. Our political integrity and self-determination as a nation is secure. We are not going to be absorbed into some European superstate (which was always a Eurosceptic fantasy, but it didn't half help ramp up their rhetoric). Our difficulties in relation to migrants and their dependants is recognised. Our financial institutions are safe from foreign interference. There have had to be compromises. But that's what happens when grown-ups negotiate about anything. Cameron has come away with more than many of us expected - and maybe more than he expected too.

But I have questions too, and there no doubt be more to come. And here is where I am especially trying to apply a Christian mind and heart.

To start with, I am troubled about a process that has seemed to deflect so much attention on the UK when Europe faces so many crises not of its making: thousands of refugees arriving on our shores, turbulence close to our borders in the Middle East, the challenges facing our financial systems and the Euro in particular. Time to discuss these urgent matters was sorely needed. Thanks to us, our leaders only brushed their outskirts. And it would have been a priceless opportunity to discuss how the EU's cumbersome decision-making processes could become more transparent and democratic, for instance by giving more power to our elected representatives in the European Parliament. Instead, we demanded that the UK should be centre-stage. (And what's to stop every nation now bidding for its own two days in the sun at EU summits now that we have what Le Monde cleverly dubbed 'à la carte Europe'?) That doesn't seem quite true to the Christian gospel.

Following from this, I have an uneasy conscience about the Prime Minister's language about Britain being a 'special case' within the EU. Why should it be? Why is Britain more special than our twenty seven partner nations, more equal than the others? It goes with the rhetoric of 'I'm going to get what's best for Britain out this negotiation and I won't come out with anything less'. Up to a point, Lord Copper. But what about what's best for Europe as a community of peoples, especially its poorer members? Or what's best for the human family for whom the EU can do so much good? A Christian social justice urges us to love our neighbour and never to neglect him or her. Ask not what the Union can do for you. Ask what you can do for it.

When it comes to all the brouhaha about 'ever closer union', I am baffled and, I have to say, worried. In every other community I belong to, whether in church or society, the idea that people and communities should draw closer together is regarded as desirable if not essential. That's how partnership, collaboration, reconciliation, peace and progress happen, precisely why the original six nations got together amid the ashes of World War 2 to build a common European home. To say 'never' smacks of a retreat into isolationism. Yes, the word 'union' no doubt puts the federalist frighteners on to some people. Yet this United Kingdom is precisely an example of how successful such an arrangement can be among four very different peoples, and what is more, with devolved powers and subsidiarities built in to make sure that 'united' doesn't mean 'absorbed'. The EU has never understood 'ever growing union', or as we might say, the convergence of its peoples, other than in the light of subsidiarity, making decisions at the most appropriate (which is often the lowest) level.

We need to recognise the nature of the world we now inhabit, and not live in some imagined past. The nation state is not the absolute autonomous entity it was. Global institutions are more and more in the ascendant. Transnational financial and trading organisations are too big for single nations to deal with on their own. Meanwhile, the world's conflicts are largely not now being fought along old national lines; security has to be understood in far bigger ways. Climate change will not be addressed by nations on their own. We need more, and more effective, partnerships and associations like the EU, not fewer. So I'm not sure that this 'never' to 'ever closer union' isn't shutting the door on an important Christian principle about how society transcends boundaries, establishes covenanted bonds and grows together for the common good.

I suppose this amounts to two cheers for the Prime Minister. Actually, I doubt if the summit will be uppermost in voters' minds when they go to the polls in June. I doubt if we shall be obsessing about benefit brakes and the Euro's effect on the FTSE (even if we should). This yes-no decision feels as though it is about much more than this: nothing less than the fundamental architecture of the European Union and whether or not Britain has a place there. It's about the basic principles of our life together as peoples and nations. A Christian mind about why this matters so profoundly is what "Christians for the EU" is about.

But in 124 days' time, it will all be down to you and me.


  1. Thank you for this intelligent and thoughtful summary of our situation. It is far better than my bad-tempered rant on Facebook, which I shall now delete and replace with a link to this.

  2. Excellent and helpful analysis. Thank you, Michael

  3. Excellent and helpful analysis. Thank you, Michael

  4. I'm afraid I fear most people will vote on whether they find Boris charming or not! And many won't vote at all. Voting is a middle class pre-occupation. I met someone at work who, the day after, didn't even know there had been a Scottish referendum.
    As far as closer ties are concerned, the problem with the UK's union is that politicians tend not to think outside the M25. That would be exacerbated when no-one in Brussels has ever heard of Nether Bagwash. When the ambulance control centre was moved from Cumbria to Lancashire, a 12 year old girl was knocked off her bike on a main road roundabout 5 minutes from the Hospital. It took more than 20 minutes to get help, because the woman in the control centre couldn't figure out where "the ring road" was. It isn't called that on the maps, but that's what everyone calls it. Local knowledge. That's what everyone fears. More policies that are based on the idea that people can just turn round and walk five minutes to another hospital with a better record, or a better school. I think I'm tending towards "in", but I have very little confidence that it will be an informed, or a widespread, vote.