A momentous and possibly fateful referendum
The forthcoming UK referendum poses the question: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’. That question demands a simple, unqualified, almost crude answer: no one may answer ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’ …. ‘on certain conditions’. Such simplicity is unavoidable in referenda: for that reason, referenda seem in general a very poor instrument. There are good reasons for living not in a direct democracy but in a representative democracy.
The public and media debate focuses, significantly, on fierce arguments about which decision will best serve the economic interests of the UK itself. The question ‘What is best for the EU?’ is not discussed. Yet the outcome of the referendum will profoundly affect the EU as a whole.
Is it just about economics ?
Successive British governments have viewed the EU primarily through the prism of economics. For decades, the EU was popularly known in Britain as the ‘Common Market’. Economic questions always lie at the heart of elections, and parties will not be elected without being thought economically competent. But there is far more to democracy than economics. Hence, the UK’s unease with EU membership.
In direct contrast to the UK’s current perspective, the founding fathers of the EU had viewed economic integration through the lens of politics, not pursued for competitive reasons but to promote peace. Essentially the EU is a ‘political community’. Christian social thought identifies politics in terms of its proper objects and the right to pursue those objects: justice, a healthy and stable social order, and the shared good of the people. It is not the purpose of a political community to maximise growth. At best politics is a countervailing force to the socially divisive character of market economics.
However the UK has consistently looked to the EU primarily to facilitate the single market, while resisting the collaborative regulation of that market. The UK pushes for EU ‘reform’– but only reform in the direction of liberalisation.
There is a deep irony to this project. Among the most admired achievements in the UK’s own post-war politics is the foundation and support or institutions that defy market logic: the National Health Service, the superb provision of public libraries, subsidised higher education. (Not by coincidence, all these institutions are currently under pressure of market-directed policy.)
In politics, the UK regards itself as self-sufficient. Britain’s island geography, its imperial and colonial heritage, and its consciousness of military victory in two great twentieth century wars, have left it with a deep attachment to exclusively national sovereignty. Shared sovereignty - the fundamental principle of the ‘Union’ - is interpreted as surrendered sovereignty.
Accordingly the UK Government sees membership of the EU as a means to its own prosperity rather than a commitment to a general good that includes its own. The British prime minister David Cameron returned from his lobbying of twenty states in February to claim that he had ‘no love for the EU’, but he had succeeded in establish the UK as a ‘special case’ – that is, it would enjoy a better deal than other states. This claim signals the rejection of collective wellbeing. I would prefer Britain to seek equality of status and to accord that equality to others.
Naturally the national sovereignty defended by the Government does not assure national autonomy. Outside the EU, the UK would find itself alone in facing states many times larger than itself; facing, also, a globalised world economy. The UK has, in fact, mortgaged part of its economic ‘sovereignty’, as it were, through a programme of privatisation by which publicly-owned industries have been sold to transnational corporations. Mr Cameron knows that the UK needs the EU, but is determined to minimise the cost of this protective shield.
In this way, the UK’s negotiations manifest an attitude (shared to a lesser extent by some other states) that, if generalised and dominant, would quickly enfeeble or even destroy the EU, whatever the vote in this referendum. At the personal level, the attitude of existing in a state of permanent dissatisfaction, of always wanting more from others while giving less, poisons the wellsprings of relationships and of joy. I believe that is true of political life also, and do not wish a form of politics in which we operate out of the worst of ourselves.
I hope the United Kingdom votes to remain, for its own sake and for the sake of the EU - but I also hope it is willing in future to be a more generous and less divisive kind of member.
Frank Turner sj
Fellow in Political Theology at Oxford University and Former Secretary for European Affairs of JESC