A Christian Case for Brexit
This short paper lays out a case for Britain leaving the EU, from a Christian perspective. It is not “neutral”, because there is no such thing as neutrality, but it is hopefully truthful - that is, my aim is that the statements in it would pass the scrutiny of Full Fact.
As we begin assessing this question, I'd like to request that we make appropriate comparisons. A trap that I've seen people fall into when discussing the EU conversationally is considering the EU they'd like to have instead of the EU we actually have. A vision is put forward of a collection of freely collaborating and trading sovereign nations, all of one mind on most things, with a democratic, accountable and proportionate trans-national governance system. It is briefly conceded that perhaps the current EU has not yet reached this lofty ideal and then it is said: “Surely this is what we want? Why can't we stay in and work towards this?”
It's notable and perhaps telling that a hearty commendation of this European vision is utterly absent from the campaign literature of the official Remain campaign. That might perhaps be because the evidence shows that the EU we have is not reformable. If 43 years of trying had not proved it already, the recent renegotiation conducted by the British government certainly has. David Cameron didn't even ask for many of the things he'd said in earlier speeches that the UK should demand, because preliminary private discussions revealed them to be impossible. Of the demands he did make, several got watered down, and their permanency without treaty change is dubious. And this is when one of the largest members is actively considering leaving. How much less reforming leverage will we have if we explicitly vote to Remain? “Stay in and radically change things for the better” is not an option on the ballot paper or in reality. We can take the EU as it is, or we can peacefully leave it. That is the choice that we have.
There are a number of much-discussed issues in the broader debate which I think are actually not particularly interesting to Christians. These are:
- Personalities. It is not important which politician, actor or sportsman is on which side, and what they say about each other, and what effect this has on their parties, and so on. The press, to their shame, focus far too much on this. Christians should already be good at avoiding the mechanism of deciding what to do by consulting their favourite celebrity.
- The UK's influence in the world. This may go up and down over time, affected by a great many things as well as this decision. This is all in the hands of God. What is far more important is whether we use what influence we have for good rather than evil.
- The membership fee. The Leave campaign has done itself a disservice by choosing to focus on the (in my view insupportable) figure of £350 million a week. I'm not sure why the more reasonable post-rebate figure of £250 million a week wasn't chosen; it's still a big number. But if the EU is a good thing, and is appropriately taking on state-like attributes, we should pay taxes to whomever we owe taxes. If it's not a good thing, we should leave regardless of the size of the fee.
- Economics. There may be short-term positive or negative effects on the economy from leaving, but a decision like this needs to consider the long-term future of the country, not the short-term. Far too much politics, both in this referendum and otherwise, is couched in terms of appealing to financial self-interest. GDP is not irrelevant, but it's far from the only thing which matters to people's quality of life. Still, it's inconceivable to me that, if we leave, trade will not continue, as it's in the interests of both sides that it does. Whatever mechanisms or agreements are used to make it happen, people's desire to buy and sell will reassert itself and businesspeople and governments will make it possible.
- Uncertainty. Both sides in this referendum have attempted to portray themselves as the “safe choice”. In truth, neither is safe. The EU is changing rapidly, as every new crisis is leveraged into a greater centralisation of power, but there are many uncertainties about leaving as well - much depends on how well the government of the day does at making new arrangements. But reassuringly, safety and certainty are not found in particular political structures or in having a particular colour of government. Our future is in God's hands, and is secure in Christ.
So, then, here are the issues which I think are most relevant.
“We need to build a United States of Europe with the Commission as government.”
Over the past two thousand years, under God, the people of the world (often led, in God's providence, by the UK) have deployed various mechanisms which help deal with the fact that any government is made up of sinful men and women to whom it is unwise to give unrestricted power. These are: nations, democratic accountability, transparency and localism.
Each of these concepts contributes to making sure a government cannot become tyrannical, that there are checks and balances, that their actions can be seen and the members can be held to account, and that people have input into the decisions which affect them. That type of government is most likely to allow us to “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:2). We should not elevate democracy and its related mechanisms to being a saviour or an absolute, but we should see it as a good gift from God.
While admittedly we may have some distance to go on one or two of these here in the UK, this paper will focus on how well the EU meets these ideals.
“From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.”
The idea of a world divided into nations is one approved of by God. Nations are not a result of the fall. On the last day, “the nations will walk by [the] light [of the glory of God], and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into [the new Jerusalem]” (Rev. 21:24). National distinctives are not a bad thing; every nation has its own splendour. By contrast, Rev. 13 does not look with favour on the idea of one world government. Having nations limits the power of any single ruler.
So what makes a nation? I would suggest that a nation is a group of people with a common idea of who they are, where they are going and how things should be done, and who are associated with a particular geographical area. Despite the rough and tumble of everyday politics, I think the UK is such a group (and Scotland voting to remain in the UK bears that out), but I would suggest that the entirety of the European continent is not, certainly when we are included. And it is this lack of a common identity which alienates people from the EU's governmental structures, and pits Greeks against Germans when discussing the best fiscal policy for the Eurozone. If they felt as if they were one nation, fiscal transfers and bailouts would not be so controversial.
“A Europe of nations is a relic of the past.”
When the EU was started 50 years ago, the aim, it is said, was to avoid future war by eliminating a dangerous strain of nationalism. But the chosen method for this was by gradually eliminating nations themselves, making a single political entity. However, we can observe from the experience of Christian denominations that organizational unity cannot cover up heart disunity. Nations, marked out by God, are more than simply political constructs, and the current tensions between countries show that being in the EU together far from guarantees peace.
The ability, if you don't like what they are doing, to peacefully remove those who govern you and install new people in their place is a hard-won right, which many around the world are not able to enjoy.
How does the EU shape up?
The part of the EU which has the “right of legislative initiative” - i.e. they get to decide the topics for legislation and write the initial versions of new laws or changes - is the unelected European Commission. Yes, the elected European Parliament can propose and vote on amendments, but the Commission gets to decide the framing and scope of each law or change, and if the Commission does not want to reopen a law or legislate in an area, there's nothing the Parliament can do about it. This gives the unelected Commission far more power over the content and scope of EU legislation than any unelected body should have in a democracy.
“There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.”
The EU also has a habit of ignoring democratic results it doesn't like. There have been eight “No” votes in referendums on various EU treaties or plans since 1992 and, with the exception of two states who managed to stay out of the euro, every single result has been either ignored or the country has been made to vote again until the right answer is given. The “European Constitution” is the best example. Rejected by the voters of France and the Netherlands in 2005, it was rearranged, renamed the Lisbon Treaty so it didn't require a referendum in those countries, and passed anyway. The Irish still constitutionally had to have one; they voted No in 2008, so they were made to vote again until they gave the right answer.
“[Bailouts are] expressly forbidden in the treaties by the famous no-bailout clause. De facto, we have changed the treaty.”
The EU also ignores the founding treaties when it suits it. The Greek and other bailouts at the time of the financial crisis were clearly illegal according to the treaties, and it was admitted that it was so. And yet they happened. This should give anyone pause who thinks that various rights in treaties like a UK veto will allow us to stop things happening in the future that we don't like. The EU view is that the treaties, in the end, can be and are ignored if doing so allows the project of closer integration to continue.
“The [European] Constitution aimed to be clear, whereas this [Lisbon] treaty had to be unclear. It is a success.”
The more it is possible to see what a government is doing and who exactly is doing it, the better it can be held to account.
How does the EU shape up?
The EU lawmaking process is not very transparent at all. One example will stand for many: after various institutions have expressed their opinion in various ways, the final form of any EU law is (often) not determined by a public amendment process, but in secret “trialogue” meetings where representatives of the Parliament, the European Council and the European Commission get together and decide what the law is actually going to say. These meetings are informal and unminuted and, because the Council presidency only lasts six months and Parliament representatives have to be re-elected regularly, the permanent and unelected Commission tends to hold the strongest hand. This method of determining the text of laws significantly undermines the power of the part of the EU which is elected.
Large multinationals spend millions of euros per year on lobbying the EU, to persuade lawmakers to change draft laws to their advantage. As rational economic actors, they wouldn't spend their money this way if it wasn't effective. Yet the public does not know which parts of draft laws were written by lobbyists.
Localism is the idea that decisions are taken as close as possible to the people they affect. This moving of power to the edges prevents any one person or group of people at the centre from having a great deal of power, with the consequent risk of them sinfully abusing it. Local leaders are also more accountable because they are more personal and better known to you.
How does the EU shape up?
The EU technically has a commitment to localism, but in practice any issue can be made an EU-wide one, where harmonization is required, for the flimsiest possible reason. Examples abound of the EU making rules about the smallest aspects of things. And by design, the laws in e.g. Latvia are in part made by legislators from Italy and Spain. This is certainly not localism.
For example, why is it a matter for the EU what level of VAT we charge on tampons? In order to reduce it to zero, George Osborne had to go and ask permission from the unelected EU Commission. He came back triumphantly saying he'd got it, and that this was a great day for the UK's influence in Europe. But it still hasn't happened, and recently the EU Parliament's Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality voted against the idea. The future is uncertain. But regardless, why on earth should we have to ask permission?
Another localism problem is the EU's penchant for trans-national trade deals like TTIP - the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a proposed trade deal with the US which the EU is negotiating. Unlike some who oppose TTIP, I am generally in favour of free trade because I think it's a massive driver that lifts poorer countries out of poverty, and that fair exchange is no robbery. However, the provisions of TTIP go far beyond removing trade tariffs. It's hard to know which category of problem to file such deals under. Their secret negotiations are a transparency problem. Large chunks of the treaty manipulate the market in favour of certain players, which is a democracy problem. But the biggest problem is perhaps a localism one - that a large body of legislation covering wide areas of human activity is agreed, then presented all at once as a “yes or no” decision, to be taken by the EU and then made binding on all the member states. Such a decision is as far from being localised as it's possible to get.
Our current immigration system is neither fair nor compassionate, and leaving the EU opens up the possibility of having a policy which considers each case on its merits, rather than one which discriminates against people from certain countries. The UK has significant historical links with, and long-standing expat communities from, countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. Yet citizens of those countries find it far harder to come here than someone from Latvia or Romania. Non-EU students for theological colleges are finding it very hard to get visas. I'm sure it's true of pastors and missionaries as well. A fair system would level this playing field, and make it easier for such people to gain admittance.
“It is a sin to despise one’s neighbour, but blessed is the one who is kind to the needy.”
Controlling and reducing immigration would also make it easier to help the genuinely needy refugees, as Scripture and Christian love command. Let's say the Prime Minister wants to announce that the UK will take 50,000 or 100,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq. Is that politically more likely if net immigration has been running at north of 300,000 a year for the past five years, or if it's been more like 100,000? Lots of people immigrating to a country in a relatively short time causes problems with the provision of public services, and with social cohesion. But then the resentment those problems cause also eliminates the political space for helping the truly needy. In short, every economic migrant who comes from Eastern Europe makes it politically harder for a refugee to come from Syria.
It is true that leaving the EU does not guarantee that we will get a fairer and more compassionate immigration policy. But it does at least make one possible.
National Character and Worldview
Finally, one reason why our interests (and voting patterns) diverge from the rest of the EU more than any other country is that there are differences between the way the UK views the world and the way continental Europe does. It's possible to overstate this point, but it is equally an error to ignore it.
The UK is a culture where whatever is not forbidden is permitted. The EU (reflecting the rest of Europe), by contrast, has a view that whatever is not regulated must be suspicious. It has been said that to an EU official, “unregulated” is nearly synonymous with “illegal”. I have personally heard European Commission officials praise regulation as a good in itself, without consideration of the goals or end. Regulated, to them, is always better then unregulated.
I think that “whatever is not forbidden is permitted” sits much better with the Christian view of liberty, and it is an attitude which, when dominant, is much more likely to preserve freedoms that Christians hold particularly dear, such as freedom of worship, freedom of conscience and freedom to evangelise.
The UK's history and national character, and Christian wisdom, support the entirely reasonable desire to have one's country run by the people one elects, with direct democratic accountability. The EU is not properly democratic and not reformable. It is moving inexorably towards a single superstate. If that's what the citizens of the other countries want, we should wish it well from the outside rather than trying to put the brakes on and thwart them by complaining from the inside. No-one who wants to leave the EU is saying we should turn our backs on Europe - we can be friends with the EU, co-operate freely with the EU, trade with the EU, and holiday in the EU. But none of those things require giving their law supremacy over ours. It's much better to be good neighbours than grumpy tenants.
The best secular case for leaving is made in the book “Why Vote Leave”, by UK MEP Daniel Hannan. I recommend it as a companion to this paper.
Joe Boot of Christian Concern has written such a good article on this topic that I almost gave up writing this one when I read it.
Please contact me if you find any errors; I would be happy to correct them.
 Some quotes from earlier speeches and manifestos: “restoring social and employment legislation to national control”, “a complete opt-out from the Charter of Fundamental Rights”, “EU jobseekers having a job offer before they come”, “revising the Working Time Directive to give flexibility to the NHS”, “ending the European Parliament's ... wasteful habit of meeting in Strasbourg as well as Brussels”, “reform of the Common Agricultural Policy”, and “reform of the EU Structural Funds”. He didn't even ask for any of this when he started his renegotiation. Back up.