Friday, June 03, 2016

'The EU Referendum: How Should We Decide?' Book Review

How should Christians vote in the EU referendum? Amid the cacophony of voices and infographics, some might find Andrew Goddards Grove Booklet on the subject very helpful. 'The EU Referendum: how should we decide?' maps out a Christian approach to the vote on 23rd June, offering some useful background and insights along the way.

Goddard begins with a critique of the debate thus far: we should challenge many of the common ways we are encouraged to think about answering the (EU) question'  including the depressing and growing tendency for elections to be fought by appeals to each voter’s self-interest, often narrowly their private, economic self-interest." Christians seek the best for the common good, for the whole of society, not just me. How do we extend that principle to nations (the best for the whole of the EU, or the world not just the UK)?The answers may not be clear, but it may be a better question than whether I can get on the housing ladder. 

After a sketch of the history of the the EU project since the war, and the see-saw of British attitudes and engagement with it, the booklet expores at 3 areas in more detail:
 - Composition of the EU, what is our attitude to community, nations and nationalism
 - Motives of the EU: what are the values that shaped its origin, shape it now, and how do we engage with them
 - Structures of the EU: what is the role of government and representation in an international political entity?

Nations and nationalism
Goddard points out that the Bible relativises the importance of nations: they are a natural part of human social development, and can be a vehicle for blessing or curse. Israels vocation of being a blessing to the nations was lost in isolationism and rebellion, but Christs full work will be complete when people from every nation are drawn to worship together. Even Israels 'special status' is subordinated to God's mission. The Bible reminds us that nations are flawed and often temporary, but also that peace between nations and human community and social sharing are good.  The Bible knows little of benign empires - a nation that keeps expending into other nations is usually tied up with idolatry and exploitation, be it Egypt, Babylon or Rome. The 'ever closer union' of the EU, and the increasing centralisation of power (e.g. the Greek terms for bailout) should make us wary. 

Goddard also reminds us that many of the EU states have walked away from former colonies, leaving many of them in poverty, to seek closer union with one another. The refugee crisis is a reminder that not all free movements of people are equal. If Africa suffers because of EU trade rules, then Europse has a moral responsibility to those beyond its borders, as well as those within. 

Migration raises another set of issues - whilst migration is key to the Biblical story, and hospitality to the migrant and stranger is a cental gospel virtue, there is also a theology of place. When the free movement of people turns citizens into economic units, and communities simply as places where fellow EU workers live, we have lost something of what it means to be in community, in place, in relationship. 

EU motives, aims and ethos
As Israel soon forgot how dreadful Egypt was, perhaps we're too easy to forget the wars which ravaged Europe until quite recently. I'm currently re-reading 'God's Smuggler' by Brother Andrew, and we should rejoice that borders once closed to the gospel are now open. The founding vision of the EU, was grounded in Catholic social teaching, and a desire for peace and co-operation, but over the decades this has drifted. Notions of a common good and subsidiarity have mostly become absorbed in trade and economics. Whilst the social chapter, and relief and development aid within the EU, highlight the social dimension, economics calls the shots. The Euro crisis was all about money, and whilst bailouts might look like an expression of solidarity, the conditions of austerity attached to them certainly don't feel like it. We may have had decades of peace, but the more the periphery feels alienated from the centre, the greater the discontent and chances of fracture. Ask the Scots. 

The EU isn't alone in pursuing money and trade ahead of most other values - the idols of the USA, the Far East and the City are no different. The economic tone of the debate, on both sides (if you saw Question Time on Thursday, see if you can find one argument used by Liz Truss for staying that isn't about money), makes it clear that we are living in a material world, and in or out it will be tough for non-economic values to gain a hearing.

Structures and Democracy
There's a helpful sketch of EU institutions at the start of chapter 4, which looks at how political institutions and authority should work. With low turnout, and a low sense of connection to the EU as a community, how can voters in the UK feel that the EU ever has a sense of legitimacy? Political/delegated authority has to have a live link to the community it serves, but "there is still no real community of the EU, no overarching EU identity" (24) - Europe is a project, not a continent. 

The conclusion sketches out what a Christian argument to remain, or to leave, would look like. How far is the EU vision based on Christian principles? How far does the EU foster co-operation? Should Christians be seeking to mend difficult relationships rather than walking away, or has the EU become a failing superstate? Is freedom of movement an opportunity for hospitality, or a corrosion of community and the sense of identity and place necessary for human flourishing?

As you can probably tell, Goddard doesn't have a definite answer either way. What he does clearly call for is a debate which goes beyond economics, beyond self-interest, and beyond caricature: "it is vital that Christians model good practice in how they set out their case and argue with opponents, and that they encourage others to do so.’ (28). For Christians there is a bigger picture, God's redemption of all nations and peoples and that any nation stands only in relative importance to the Kingdom of God. 

A large proportion of the current EU was, 30 years ago, part of either the USSR or the Warsaw Pact. International arrangements change, even some which seem set in stone. There is a boiling frog moment when some arrangements become too toxic to tolerate. At what point does rootless migration, disconnected politics, unaccountable power, Greek poverty, and the primacy of mammon cease to be a price worth paying?

There is plenty more to be said: about justice (the current EU setup does a good job relocating the poor for the benefit of the rich); about mission; about the environment; about pretty much everything.  The EU referendum raises so many issues - is it right for a country as prosperous as the UK to rely on migrant labour to prop up a standard of healthcare denied to the countries from which its employees come? Is more 'democracy' based on an appeal to individual economic self interest every 5 years something worth leaving the EU for? Is it right to make such a big decision just because David Cameron wanted to use the promise of a referendum as a political tactic?  

I found 3 thoughts particularly helpful:
 - Christians are called to be faithful in relationships and to try to make them work, rather than walk away. (But there does come a moment to leave Egypt...)
 - Nations never have the ultimate demand on our loyalty.
 - Christians should vote for the common good, not personal self-interest.

 Two things disappoint me about the debate thus far: the apocalyptic language on both sides, and the silencing of non-economic voices in the campaign. The BBC correspondent even had the gall to ask Jeremy Corbyn why the Labour message on Europe wasn't getting across. Um, because you're not reporting it? An appeal to self-interest will reinforce selfishness, an appeal to values, justice and love will reinforce values, justice and love. The referendum debate is a mirror - would you actually want this nation in your club?