WE ARE only weeks away from taking one of the biggest decisions of our time: to stay in or leave the European Union. Yet the quality of the debate so far has hardly reflected the magnitude of that decision. Churches could do more to help voters consider the issues.
The consequences of Brexit (leaving) would be profound. Although the Treaty on European Union permits any member state to “decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements”, this has never so far happened. Since union was initiated in the 1950s, there has been only expansion. For a member to leave now, on the basis of the will of a majority of its voters, would be shattering for the whole project as originally conceived.
True, the UK is not the only country whose future within the Union looks uncertain: Greece has been in the departure lounge for a while. But whereas the situation in Greece is a consequence of a specific set of circumstances, and its people wish to stay in Europe, the UK is considering its position because of pressure entirely from within.
Greece is also a relatively small economy, whereas the UK has the second largest in Europe. As Ben Ryan wrote in a recent Theos report, A Soul for the Union, a UK exit would be a “far more severe blow” to the Union “in terms of economic power and global diplomatic prestige” (News, 29 January).
And yet the debate we are having has not reflected this.
INSTEAD of helping us to think about the original vision behind the European project, and its relevance today, those shaping the debate have focused largely on the economic pros and cons of Britain’s continued membership or withdrawal.
Instead of inviting us to consider whether promoting solidarity, peace, and prosperity for all is still a worthwhile aim, it is assumed that we are concerned only with financial growth, the size of the State, and the security of our borders.
A vision grounded on explicitly Christian convictions about human dignity, freedom, and interdependence now represents, for many, little more than a costly and perplexing bureaucracy and the threat of migrant workforces.
As Ryan observes, we seem uninterested in recapturing “a sense of identity and moral basis of Europe” in asking what Europe is and what it is for. It all adds up to our going into the polls seriously under-informed.
WE NEED to raise the level of discourse, as our media and politicians seem unable to do this.
The Church of England and the Church of Scotland have been showing the way with their blogpost Reimagining Europe (www.reimaginingeurope.co.uk). Launched last September, it seeks to take the debate beyond economic and political perspectives, and to explore themes from first principles, including those with a “clear theological resonance”, such as sovereignty, subsidiarity, and solidarity.
It has attracted an impressive body of contributors from across the spectrum, including the Archbishop of Canterbury; the Bishop in Europe, the Rt Revd Robert Innes; and the MPs Caroline Spelman and David Burrowes.
The Cambridge-based think tanks the Jubilee Centre (www.jubilee-centre.org) and the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (www.klice.co.uk) have both launched excellent comment pieces in extended blog-posts. The latter’s Director, Jonathan Chaplin, has also co-edited a fine collection of essays, God and the EU (Routledge, 2015).
CHURCHES could also help broker a better debate at the grass-roots. Just as they perform a valuable service in many constituencies by arranging hustings events before a General Election, so they could host public conversations to discuss the referendum.
Since no mainstream denomination in England and Wales has taken a public stance on the question — unlike the Church of Scotland, which has consistently advocated “ever closer union” — they are well-placed to host good debates.
As with hustings, local politicians could be invited to speak, but an important difference would be to invite people who are not wedded to a party line to take part: experts able to set out the wider issues in a reasoned and straightforward way. These might include contributors to the resources mentioned above, and academics from universities near by. Many would welcome the opportunity to promote more informed debate, and challenge politicians to engage with a broader agenda.
Cathedrals such as Derby and Ely are hosting debates, but more parishes and Churches Together groups could also get involved. As well as offering a neutral space for debate, there are profound spiritual issues at stake to do with the Christian principles of neighbourliness, solidarity, and mutuality, which churches need to see aired.
I AM organising an event, and have found that achieving a balance of speakers needs careful research, particularly in the case of non-politicians whose stance on the EU may not be black-and-white. But including such people is vital if the conversation is to move beyond its current restricted parameters. People of faith need to be encouraging a different conversation, not merely reflecting what is happening elsewhere.
Whether people want a better debate is another question, but there is only one way to find out. Perhaps the chance to discuss our place in the EU in other than narrow, self-interested terms might attract people who are turned off by what has been offered so far.
Churches can help to generate a new enthusiasm for the issue. As we saw with the referendum on Scottish independence, when the question becomes “What kind of country, in what kind of union?”, voters can become very energised.
Professor Andrew Bradstock convenes the Centre for Theology and Religion in Public Life at the University of Winchester. Its EU debate is on 9 April (www.winchester.ac.uk/tripl).