WHATEVER one may think about referendums and about whether David Cameron will take on the dubious honour from Anthony Eden of being the most disastrous Prime Minister of the past 100 years, the passage of two years since the Brexit referendum offers an opportunity to reflect on the fine mess that we have got ourselves into.
That is what a group from the Church of England and the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) did when they met in Brussels with senior officials and politicians to discuss the current situation as it is seen from the other side of the Channel. It would be fair to say that all of us came away thinking that it was both far more complex and much bleaker than we had thought. The European Union is established on the free movement of goods, capital, and labour — and there are no solutions possible short of accepting these principles.
That means that “You can’t have your cake and eat it” (or, as the Germans say, rather more positively, “Wash my fur but don’t get me wet”). It is a system that requires adjudication through mutually accepted standards and mediated by a court. Norway and Switzerland may not be in the EU, but their arrangements require them to play (and pay) by the rules. This conundrum is most starkly seen in the need to ensure the free movement of goods and people across the Irish border, which is a key aspect for the survival of the Good Friday Agreement, and which is supported even by the DUP.
It is also clear that Europe is more united than it had been before Brexit: there is no incentive to offer concessions that might mean other countries would start their own renegotiations with Brussels. And with an unpredictable President of the United States, who is throwing free-trade deals into the waste-paper basket, now is not the most opportune time for nations to start working alone when it is so much more effective to work as part of a massive economic bloc.
Sovereign states have far more geopolitical power when they pool their sovereignty — a fact completely overlooked in the nostalgic ideas about “reclaiming our sovereignty”. Contrary to what might have been the case under Henry VIII, England is no longer an Empire.
All this might be obvious, but it patently does not fit into the narrative that is told at home. The Conservative Party remains as divided as it was before the vote. In fact, in the strange Alice in Wonderland world of modern political discourse, some in the party that has traditionally supported big business are telling us to ignore the warnings of the likes of Airbus and BMW, which employ thousands directly and many more in their pan-European supply chains.
Others clearly want to remain in the single market and customs union, but they cannot say so: the normal rules of parliamentary politics are suspended because of the “people’s mandate” of a referendum, which subverts the horse-trading and compromises of the British system.
The Labour Party might have been able to make large gains over the past few years, but it, too, has been able to hide its divisions behind the idea that the people have spoken. Its current leadership is less than enthusiastic about the principles behind the EU: for international socialists, the EU was always little more than a capitalist conspiracy that ruled out state subsidy and intervention.
SO, WHAT should the Churches be doing? Negotiating our way through this mess will not be easy. We can obviously pray for reconciliation, especially if there is no solution and Britain is forced into a third-country status, which could have a disastrous impact on the economy.
But it is also clear that Churches are also about dreaming dreams for the future and reminding people of the God in whose image they are made. In hindsight, we might well have missed the opportunity for that dreaming during the referendum campaigns, when idealism was scarce.
The EU has preserved peace for the longest period ever across a continent that has spent centuries at war. That is why almost all historians are passionate Europeans. But that peace is fragile in the face of the simplistic populism and extremist nationalism that still dominate much of the political debate at home and across the Continent.
That means that our Church leaders might need to stand up for a vision of pan-European peace and a common humanity, since nobody else seems prepared to speak up for it — no doubt at the risk of upsetting some churchgoers and being lampooned by the Daily Mail. And that might even be the best way of washing our fur without getting wet.
Canon Mark Chapman is Vice-Principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon, Professor of the History of Modern Theology at Oxford University, and co-chair of the Meissen Theological Conference.