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A Christian case for the EU

by
21 February 2014

The UK should remain a member to promote peace and fairness, argues Sue Bird

UK CITIZENS may be given the opportunity in a few years' timeto vote in a referendum on the country's relationship with the European Union. As a Christian, I think that the UK should remain in and fully engaged with the EU.

From the perspective of a British person who works for the European Commission, but who remains passionately concerned about her native country, I would like to pass on my understanding of what the main issues are.

The European Union is a young organisation (only 60 or so years old). But it was formed primarily to promote peace after the horrors of two World Wars, when the founder members - among them strong Roman Catholic Christians - vowed never to go to war with each other again.

For some people, this reasoning is now outdated. For me, its validity remains: with so many conflicts in our world, institutions that maintain peace are surely to be prized. My ageing father describes himself as dismayed at the idea of the UK's "coming out of the EU"; for him, the experience of the Second World War should never be repeated.

 

THE EU began as the European Coal and Steel Community. Coal and steel were the key war-making materials. So, in sharing a common space in this exchange, the founders engaged in new and trusting relationships with each other. The EU has built on this solid base. It has been through progressive enlargements, involving different policies, as more European countries have seen it to be in their interests to join this club. The EU now stands at28 member states, and collectivelyis the largest trading area in the world.

Individuals, companies, nations, and regional trading areas need to be able buy from and sell goods to each other to prosper. Over the years, the EU has created for itself the so-called internal market, where common standards have been set up to make trade across national borders easier. This has brought economic benefits to the UK, which are estimated to be worth more than £3000 per person, per year.

The EU has been given the power by its member states to negotiate trade agreements on their behalf because, by acting together, better agreements can be achieved than by countries' acting individually. Discussions on a new trade agreement are beginning between leaders from the United States and the EU, which, if concluded successfully, promise benefits to both regions.

 

CHRISTIANS are often concerned about fair trade. I know from my work with the European Commission that it is increasingly incorporating sustainable development and corporate social responsibility clauses in trade agreements.

By trading well, the EU puts itself in the position of the largest provider of international development aid in the world. We have built up expertise over the years, sought out many successful partners, and made a difference in tackling poverty. We have contributed to the partial fulfilment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

We are actively working with other nations and regions to secure a regime to follow on from the MDGs, which will focus on sustainable development - and will include concern for the environment, as well as for poverty-reduction.

As a Christian, I want to care for God's creation. Climate change does not respect national borders, so I believe that the UK needs more than a UK-only approach. Coordinated action is required, which can be achieved if EU member states agree, for example, to work towards common standards to reduce carbon emissions, or pool resources to develop energy-saving technologies.

 

WHEN he was Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams affirmedthe need to work together fora better environment. In a sermon in Copenhagen in 2009, he said: "We cannot show the right kindof love for our fellow humans unless we also work at keeping the earthas a place that is a secure home for all people, and for future generations."

We know that some of the greatest threats to livelihoods from climate change are likely to be among vulnerable people in developing countries. Arguably, a common EU approach, where activities form a coherent whole, is better than individual countries' deciding to try to achieve what could turn out to be contradictory goals.

The EU has a "European social model", the aim of which is to foster a more equitable sharing of the benefits of trading together, while trying to avoid a widening gap between rich and poor. There tends to be suspicion in the UK of what this model is about, epitomised recently by reports on so-called "benefits tourism" by newspapers in the UK. I have been indignant at the nature of some of this coverage.

The European Commission has published a report saying that there is little impact from mobile European citizens on national social security systems, and that these systems do what they are supposed to do by providing protection for those in need. Some British newspapers, however, have portrayed the opposite to be the case. The spokesman for the Commissioner (one of my bosses) said on BBC news at the time that he thought this coverage "a gross misrepresentation" of the truth.

There are other areas of concern to Christians, where being a member state of the EU makes a difference. Addressing human rights and combating trafficking through information-sharing is one example. Another example is that the EU provides funding specifically to address the needs of inner-city areas, where other funding might not be available.

Further examples concern efficiency: common transport systems across Europe (railways that connect with each other rather than stop at a border); common IT networks; and cross-border recognition of educational qualifications, so that EU citizens are better prepared to work outside their home countries, if they choose to do so.

 

I HAVE a vested interest in the UK-EU debate, as do two million other UK nationals who are resident outside the UK in other areas of the EU. My employment with the European Commission might also be in question if the UK were to leave the EU - but my concerns go beyond that.

It is not always a bed of roses with the EU, however, and we should always look for improvement. There is always a tension - not necessarily an unhealthy one - at the heartof the EU on the question of "subsidiarity" (which has its origins in Roman Catholic social teaching).

This was about who does what, at what level of governance. For example, member states have given the European Commission the job of monitoring competition policy on their behalf, while they have largely given themselves the job of dealing with education provision. Without stretching the analogy too far, this reminds me of the healthy "vine and the branches" of John 15: unity at the centre, but diversity in working out our relationships with each other.

For me, Romans 12.18 encapsulates what my Christian duty is concerning the relationship of the UK with the EU: "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone."

If I have a vote in any referendum, I will vote for my countryto remain a full member of theEU. Whether the concern is peace, fair trade, the environment, social policies, or other issues that Christians are concerned about, this, for me, is the way to flourishing relationships, aligned with Christian principles, with our European neighbours.

Sue Bird is lay vice-chair of the Council of Holy Trinity Pro-Cathedral, in Brussels. She works as a Policy Co-ordinator in the Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion at the European Commission, and is also a member of Pro-Europa - the Brussels Council of the British European Movement, which was set up to work for the UK's remaining part of the EU.

The views expressed in this article are of the author only, and may not be interpreted as expressing an official position of the EC, or of Holy Trinity Pro-Cathedral, Brussels.

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