I lived for four years in Russia – I love the country and I’ve learned a lot from my Russian friends. I was born in Kenya – I love the country and I’ve learned a lot from my Kenyan friends. But my passport says that I am British. English was the first language I Read More
The EU – in or out?
When I was in my teens, the European Union – then known as the EEC – had just nine members. Out on the sillier fringes of Christian beliefs about the end-times, there was the idea that when a tenth member joined, the organisation would fulfil the picture of the ten-horned Beast of Revelation 13. A quick search on-line reveals that updated versions of this view are still around, even though the EU now comprises 28 members. Sadly, Christians can be just as gullible as anyone else!
In this article I want to set out a few thoughts about the approaching referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. This is a really important issue for our country and – like many other issues – it divides Christians. It’s possible to find articulate and well-argued material on both sides of the debate.
My intention here is not to tackle every argument – that would take far too long and go well beyond any expertise I might have! And I’m not going to touch on the process and the politics that led up to the referendum itself. Instead, I want to suggest what the priorities should be for Christians making up our minds, and try to point out some gaps or mistakes in the arguments we are being offered.
The priorities for Christians
At the time of the last election, I argued that ‘gospel freedom’ should be right at the top of Christians’ priorities in deciding how to vote. I think the same in this case too, though the arguments are now a bit different. It’s not just about our freedom to practise and proclaim our faith in our own country, it’s also about freedom to take the gospel to where it needs to be heard. All Christians should be clear about this: what Europe needs more than anything else is not economic prosperity, clean beaches, green technology or equal rights. It needs the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it is one of the most desperately needy of the world’s mission fields – most parts of the continent of Europe have far fewer Bible-believing Christians than the UK. It is also a place where representatives from the world’s most closed countries can be found, and can potentially be reached.
In general, peace and stability favour the spread of the gospel. While I don’t think that leaving the EU would make it much harder for British citizens to visit or work on the Continent, it remains a possibility – which is an argument in favour of remaining ‘in’, though not a very strong one.
The other aspect of this argument is religious freedom at home. European courts have sometimes defended, and sometimes failed to defend, the rights of British citizens to freedom of religion. Legislation both in Britain and in many continental countries has moved rapidly away from biblical morality in recent years, and this trend seems set to continue. For that reason, I believe it is difficult to argue convincingly whether membership of the EU in the coming years would help or hinder religious freedom in the UK.
Is it OK for Christians to vote in a way which will improve economic prosperity? Yes, of course it is – it just shouldn’t be our top priority. We want people to be prosperous, and we want to be able to give more too. The great majority of economic commentators are saying that the economic risks of leaving are greater than those of staying. I can’t see any reason to disagree with them.
One of the most pressing topical issues is that of refugees and migration. The point of this article is not to argue the case for or against allowing more refugees into Britain. Clearly, our EU membership has not prevented Britain from controlling access or the right to settle for refugees and asylum seekers. We may well want to argue that Britain should accept more refugees, and as Christians I think we should certainly be arguing for much better treatment of asylum seekers (especially in detention centres), but I don’t think that EU membership makes any difference to these arguments. As for economic migration, and the freedom of movement that is one of the EU’s core principles – leaving the EU clearly would give us greater control over our borders, but not the absolute control that the pro-leave camp often claim. I’ll return to this point.
One more priority for Christians. I want to make a strong plea for courtesy and kindness as we debate the issues. Real Christians will be characterised by a desire to listen, to think the best of one another and to be fair to other people’s views. We will not mock, abuse or caricature each other. Especially on social media, that character is very often missing.
Blind spots in the arguments
Let’s look at a few important points that proponents of each side of the debate are liable to overlook.
Arguments overlooked on the pro-stay side
- Britain really isn’t the same as the rest of Europe. One of the main reasons why the EU is unloved in the UK is that we see less need for it than our neighbours on the Continent. That’s because our historical experience over the past century is so different. Almost every other EU member has been a major battlefield at least once during that century (Sweden and Portugal are the obvious exceptions). Within living memory, armies of nearby European states have invaded their borders. Their citizens have been refugees. Their economies have had to be rebuilt. Britain has been spared this experience. This is why the British have never really ‘got’ the political project that has driven the EU forward and is behind the idea of ‘ever closer union’. It was a defence against a fate we had not suffered. So it is not fair to label the pro-leave camp as isolationist ‘little Englanders’ just because they are wary of political integration with 27 or more very different nation states. It’s a perfectly reasonable position to take.
- The EU really is unaccountable and (in part) corrupt. While the European Parliament is a democratic, directly elected body, its powers are highly constrained. Many decisions are made by the Council of Ministers or the impenetrable EU bureaucracy. There have been far too few controls on the way that money is spent and far too little transparency. It would be healthy for the pro-stay lobby to acknowledge this more freely.
- Many of the claimed benefits of EU membership are either not due to the EU, or would not require our continued EU membership to maintain. There are some pretty far-fetched claims around – the EU is credited with everything from the provision of holiday pay to visa-free travel. Many of the more genuine claims invite a ‘Yes – but’ kind of response. For instance, it is true that the EU pays subsidies to British farmers. But the UK has had to pay far larger sums to subsidise farmers in other EU countries, notably France, through the notorious Common Agricultural Policy (whose excesses have now been somewhat reined in). The EU is not really responsible for ‘keeping the peace in Europe for 70 years’. That’s mainly down to NATO, and it’s unlikely that it would have happened without massive support from the USA – which, last time I looked, was not a member of the EU. And I don’t believe that security co-operation against terrorism would be damaged in the slightest by leaving the EU, simply because that would be in no-one’s interests.
- We would not actually be totally disconnected from Europe if we left the EU! ‘Bristol is a connected city with links all over the world, and being part of Europe is a crucial part of that’ – says the ‘Britain stronger in Europe’ website. Well, I expect the citizens and councils of Geneva or Oslo would claim exactly the same for their cities – which, of course, are not in EU states. Cultural links would probably suffer hardly at all if we left the EU.
Arguments overlooked on the pro-leave (Brexit) side
- There is a real risk of the break-up of the UK if we vote to leave the EU. Polls consistently show that Scotland is more in favour of EU membership than the rest of the UK (England and Wales come out the same). This means it is highly likely that if the UK overall votes to leave, Scotland will still have voted to stay. This in turn is very likely to trigger another independence referendum in the near future, with every likelihood that the UK would break up. Most people on the pro-leave camp are committed Unionists (and so am I), but this risk is not receiving the attention it merits.
- National sovereignty is not really attainable – at least, not in the sense that the pro-leave camp would have us believe. Trade with EU countries is still going to be absolutely vital in the event of Brexit: exports to EU countries account for roughly half of all British exports and the idea that that’s falling steadily is not correct. Here’s an example of how the figures can be unfairly spun: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3439693/Britain-s-trade-EU-slumps-Major-boost-Leave-campaign-exports-ou This means that the UK will still have to comply to a large extent with EU regulations, but with no freedom to influence them. There would also be very significant financial costs, and probably a commitment to a high degree of freedom of movement too. This article is helpful on the costs the UK pays, alongside those for non-EU countries Norway and Switzerland: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-35943216. And at best, it would take years of painful negotiations to secure the favourable trade deals that the Brexit camp claim we’ll be able to make – accompanied all the time by economic uncertainty.
- Closely connected to the previous point – very few other people in the world seem to think the UK leaving the EU is a good idea. The pro-leave side appeals to a nostalgia for the days when Britain was able to act independently in the world, or perhaps even the days of the Cold War when Britain was so indispensable to the USA. Those days are over and it is pointless to appeal to them.
- There are real hopes that the EU can get better (from a UK perspective)! British voters are not the only people with strong doubts about the performance and direction of the EU. Although David Cameron’s renegotiation did not achieve much, the process did bring out some strong misgivings in other EU states. Further reform may (only ‘may’) be possible if we stay in.
Which way will I be voting?
As this article will have made clear, I am absolutely no fan of the EU! However, I think I will reluctantly be voting to remain. I will be holding my nose as I do. I think the risks of leaving are too great and too hard to quantify. Guaranteed freedom of movement, in all directions, is of benefit to the spread of the gospel. And I don’t want to risk the end of the UK.
Other things to read
John Stevens has written a very helpful blog post at http://www.john-stevens.com/2016/04/should-we-stay-or-should-we-go-deciding.html, which covers ground fairly similar to this article and with a fuller introduction. He also refers out to a couple of other articles – pro-stay by Timothy Garton Ash and pro-leave by Gisela Stuart (which I didn’t find as well-argued). A fascinating (and long) article giving first hand insights into the internal machinations of the EU, and its lack of accountability, is at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/05/yanis-varoufakis-why-we-must-save-the-eu – written by Greece’s former finance minister, who had good reason to feel very sore about it.
Remember, I don’t claim to have covered everything – far from it! I’d like to hear what people think, and perhaps there will be another article in a few weeks’ time.