Referendum Briefing Paper no. 1
November 23rd 2015
(Guy is also contributing to a national blog on the Referendum hosted by the Church of England which you can read here)
The Jubilee Centre is producing a number of discussion papers and articles in the lead up to the EU Referendum in 2017 (or earlier). This first one provides a brief introduction to the EU and the long term debate around Britain’s membership. It gives an overview of the for and against arguments as they currently stand, and then considers some biblical insights that can help Christians understand what is at stake in this debate and referendum.
EU membership is and has been for decades a vexed political question. In recent years the rise of UKIP has renewed debate about Britain’s place in the EU, with expensive bureaucracy and unchecked immigration taking centre stage. The campaigns to remain in and leave the EU have formally launched, with strong support for each.
The Bible offers a number of insights into the questions raised by the referendum and Britain’s membership of the EU, including on migration and national autonomy. It also has much to say about the concentration of political and financial power. These offer a helpful framework for engaging with the debate, without answering the question one way or the other.
The origins of the EU
The origins of the EU as it currently exists were forged in the years immediately following the Second World War. The aim of the Union was to make future wars between members impossible by eliminating competition for natural resources through the common market, and bringing about mutually beneficial economic relationships. Later on, monetary union – the creation of the Euro – was designed to make this even easier and bring members closer together still. The flow of money from one country to another was supposed to be used as a kind of social glue to align the interests of members and prevent future tensions erupting.
To these ends, the EU’s single market aims to guarantee ‘four freedoms’ between its 28 member states:
- Freedom of movement – for people to live, work, study and travel without restriction.
- Free movement of capital to facilitate investment between member countries.
- Free movement of services, enabling the cross-border delivery of services.
- Free movement of goods, with no internal customs barriers and common customs policy towards other countries.
These core principles of the EU have increasingly been questioned in recent years, in the wake of both the global financial crisis that started in 2008, and the more recent migrant crisis. Greece’s near default and the poor state of the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese economies have highlighted the risks inherent in monetary union without full political and economic union. This can only work properly with greater centralisation of decision-making.
Additionally, the recent influx of refugees has prompted some countries to consider closing their borders, curtailing the free movement of people that is foundational to the EU. Countries where large concentrations of migrants enter from outside the EU are finding their public services overstretched. The economic and humanitarian pressures on the EU threaten to push the ideals on which it was founded to breaking point.
Britain and the EU
Britain’s involvement in the European community has always been controversial. Ever since closer integration was first proposed it has been a source of contention. Britain declined membership of the EEC when it was first formed in 1957. When it did apply to join in 1961 – due to economic stagnation at home in the face of strong growth in France and Germany – its membership was vetoed by then French President Charles de Gaulle, who saw Britain as hostile to Europe and more interested in building links with the US.
Britain ultimately joined the EEC in 1973, and a referendum over membership in 1975 showed overwhelming approval, with two-thirds of the public voting in support. However, inclusion did not solve Britain’s economic problems, and critics remained vocally opposed. Scepticism grew in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, and only increased further with the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 under John Major – bringing closer integration and handing over substantial powers to the new European Union, despite concessions on keeping the pound. From 1997 Tony Blair sought closer integration still, though with a stronger economy wider support for joining the Euro was limited.
Bitter divisions over Europe have been brought to the surface again by the Euro crisis, reflected in and catalysing the rise of the Eurosceptic party UKIP. Opinion polling shows that the public is divided. Throughout 2013 polls consistently showed strong support for leaving the EU. In 2014 the polls were more evenly divided, and throughout 2015 there has been consistent support for staying in.
Under pressure from UKIP and from Eurosceptics within the Conservative party, David Cameron made it a manifesto promise for the 2015 General Election that he would hold a referendum on EU membership before the end of 2017. Despite disagreement at the time, the idea of a referendum is now supported by all of the main political parties. In the meantime, David Cameron has committed to renegotiating the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU, in the hopes that a ‘better deal’ will convince more people to stay – his preferred outcome.
Three campaigns were launched in October. Vote Leave (www.voteleavetakecontrol.org) and Leave.EU (leave.eu) were two separate campaigns in favour of leaving Europe. Britain Stronger in Europe (www.strongerin.co.uk) is the official campaign to stay.
What all parties agree is that the decision of whether or not to remain in the EU is one that will have far-reaching consequences – for our economy, for our national identity, for our place on the world stage and our ability to shape and respond to global events. It cannot be taken lightly.
This paper aims to set out some of the biblical principles that might guide Christians in engaging with the issues raised by the campaigns, and ultimately how they cast their vote for whether or not to remain in the EU.
Overview of campaign arguments
There are various arguments for and against staying in the EU. A major strand of the debate focuses on the economic case for each.
Vote Leave raises the issue of the money the UK pays for its EU membership, and the potential benefits of recovering that. ‘We regain control. We stop sending £350 million every week to Brussels and instead spend it on our priorities, like the NHS and science research.’
Leave.EU addresses the argument that membership of the EU will cost jobs. ‘If 3 million UK jobs depend on our membership of the EU, then even more jobs in Europe depend on our economy. We will always be a part of Europe. But the EU is run for big business, big banks and big politics – not for ordinary people.’ EU bureaucracy is commonly cited as a costly and time-consuming problem by smaller companies.
Britain Stronger in Europe, on the other hand, maintains that our economy benefits more from staying in the EU.
‘Being part of Europe means we are part of one of the biggest trading blocs in the world. So the bottom line is that we are much stronger being a part of Europe than being an island to ourselves.’ – Sir Richard Branson
Moreover, there are other issues like national defence and organised that are better addressed as part of a larger body, rather than in isolation. ‘The benefits of being in – a stronger economy, stronger security and stronger leadership on the world stage – clearly outweigh the costs.’
‘Crime crosses boundaries. It does not respect individual countries. We will keep citizens in our countries far safer by remaining within Europe.’ – Sir Hugh Orde, former president of the Association of Chief Police Officers
Overlapping but distinct from these issues is the question of immigration. Critics argue that the free movement of people within the EU has led to unsustainable levels of immigration. The only way to regain control of our borders is for Britain to leave the EU. This argument has gained traction since the ‘open door’ policy of the last Labour government led to net migration of around 200,000 per year. Subsequently, despite Conservative pledges in 2010 to bring net migration back down to below 100,000, the last government fared even worse and migration rose to over 300,000 per year.
The European refugee crisis has brought new attention to this issue. Hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants crossed into Europe in 2014 and 2015, a large proportion from war-torn Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan. The European Parliament has voted in favour of a quota system that distributes asylum seekers fairly across member states. Refugees do not have the full freedom of movement that EU citizens do, but any who become non-refugee long-term residents or are naturalised can move wherever they want.
The migrant crisis is likely to play into the hands of the ‘Leave’ campaigns, since immigration is already a highly emotive issue and has always formed a key part of the argument against EU membership. With the prospect of many tens or hundreds of thousands more people entering the UK, and relatively little we can do about it, these arguments gain greater attention.
In summary the pro-EU arguments include:
- The economic benefits of membership of the common market
- Better national security and response to organised crime in a global era
- A greater role in global leadership
The anti-EU arguments include:
- Saving money spent on membership
- Freedom from red tape and over-regulation
- The ability to control our borders and prevent unlimited immigration
Although remaining in the EU is the preferred option for most political parties, the downsides of membership are widely recognised. Before the referendum takes place, Prime Minister David Cameron has committed to renegotiating the UK’s relationship with Europe, hoping to find a solution that will be more attractive to the majority of voters. This would likely include some changes to the rules around immigration, and a degree of freedom from the bureaucracy that small businesses complain costs them time and money.
If concessions cannot be secured, the more Eurosceptic MPs are far more likely to support withdrawal from the EU.
‘We want, in an ideal world, to stay in a reformed European Union but I think the price of getting out is lower than it’s ever been. It’s better for us to stay in, but to stay in a reformed EU. That’s where I am.’ – Boris Johnson
This is also the conclusion of the CBI (Confederation of British Industry), which represents around 190,000 businesses. The group warns that although the EU needs reform, there would be serious downsides to Britain leaving and that the problems associated with staying in ‘are significantly outweighed by the benefits’.
There are good practical and ideological arguments for and against staying in the EU. But how do these measure up against biblical principles, and what new insights does the Bible bring to the debate?
Centralisation vs Subsidiarity
One of the most important elements of the framework within which we locate the Europe debate is that of centralisation and the concentration of power – whether that power is political, financial, technological or otherwise.
The Bible is extremely wary of centralised power, because it is almost inevitably distant, abusive and unaccountable. The epitome of this is Egypt, under whose highly centralised and bureaucratic rule the Israelites spent many years in slavery. Pharaoh, the country’s god-king, owned almost all the land. There was a small bureaucratic elite of priests, the only ones who could read and write. The majority of the population served the network of temples and had, effectively, been in bonded servitude to Pharaoh since the time of Joseph. The Pharaoh of Moses’ time treated the Israelites harshly, working them ruthlessly and ultimately killing the new-born boys in his attempt to maintain control (Exodus 1).
The Israelites’ years of slavery in Egypt fundamentally shaped their identity and faith, and their escape from Egypt is still remembered in the Passover festival every year. But this was not the last time they experienced the abuses inherent in the centralisation of power. In the 8th century, the northern kingdom of Israel was exiled by the belligerent Assyrian empire and essentially disappeared from history. The southern kingdom of Judah was exiled to Babylon in the 7th century, though in this case they were able to retain and even consolidate their religious and cultural identity. On their return to Jerusalem under the new Persian administration, they emerged as the Jewish people.
The Bible’s scepticism towards centralised power can be summarised in the words of the 19th century politician and historian, Lord Acton. ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.’
The risks inherent in any concentration of power meant that the Israelites themselves were supposed to take a different approach in their own political structures. After the conquest of the Promised Land, Israel existed as a loose confederation of tribes, which operated independently and came together under the leadership of an individual only when circumstances demanded it, such as times of war. When the people demanded a king so that they would have a leader like the surrounding nations, this was viewed as a rejection of God’s authority and a development that would pave the way for high taxes, conscription and servitude (1 Samuel 8).
Deuteronomy 17 sets out the laws that were to apply to Israel’s king, when they did demand one. Unlike the kings of foreign nations, Israel’s king was not to amass a personal fortune, his own army, or many wives. He was to be subject to the Law – not above it or even its author, like the Assyrian kings – and was not to ‘consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left’ (verse 20).
Instead of the centralised and top-down management characteristic of Egypt and Assyria, the Bible reflects the idea that decisions should be taken at the lowest, most local level possible – closest to those affected by them, by people who understand their context best, and who have the most interest in their outcome. A task is only passed up to a higher, more central authority if it cannot better be addressed at a lower one. This is explored in the idea of Subsidiarity found in Catholic Social Teaching. The biblical approach to government is therefore ‘as large as necessary, as small as possible’.
The principle of subsidiarity is supposed to be built into the EU, established in Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union:
‘Under the principle of subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Union shall act only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.’
In practice, however, the most contentious aspect of the UK’s relationship with Europe has been the appropriation of more and more power by Brussels, undermining Britain’s sovereignty and ability to make decisions that reflect its own interests. A common complaint is that the legislation that comes out of Brussels imposes significant burdens on small businesses, making it harder for them to function effectively.
This risk of undermining its member countries’ autonomy is seen most clearly in the case of Greece. The terms of the bailout that have allowed Greece to avoid bankruptcy and exit from the Euro have imposed conditions upon the country that were agreed not by the Greek people or leaders, but by EU officials and creditors.
The greater and closer the integration with Europe, the less member-countries are able to determine their own laws and policies. The centralisation of power leads to distant and disinterested decision-making, at best. At worst, it is hostile and coercive, harmful to those it is supposed to serve.
Money and power
The relationships between the EU’s member countries have changed considerably over time. The early precursors of the EU were created through economic integration to prevent tensions from setting them against one another. Now, though, it is the misuse of money within the context of that integration that threatens to pull apart the Eurozone and the EU.
Concentration of financial power is as dangerous, from a biblical perspective, as the concentration of political power – and the two tend to go together in any case. Moreover, debt is treated with extreme caution. In the Bible, taking a loan is a desperate measure intended to avoid absolute destitution. Any loans granted were supposed to be made without interest (Deuteronomy 23:19), because the express purpose of a loan was to enable economic independence – allowing the recipient to get back on their feet. The creditor was not supposed to profit financially from the arrangement.
In fact, charging interest is seen as a form of injustice, a way that the rich extract more money from the already poor. Debt almost inevitably involves a relationship of power. As Proverbs 22:7 reads, ‘The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.’ This is an observation, not the ideal, since the Bible also lays down requirements for lenders as well as borrowers.
Rather than being a means to closer integration for the EU, money has apparently now become an end in itself. That emphasis on the economy and the single-minded focus on the repayment of debt means that Europe is losing the memory of why it was created. Instead of a shared identity, facilitated through money, the culture it is forging is more of an adversarial us-and-them approach that places the survival of the currency and the ideal of union above the actual wellbeing of its members.
This change did not happen overnight. It has been going on for years behind the scenes but was only revealed at the financial crisis. (As Warren Buffett remarked, ‘Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.’) To take the most newsworthy example, the Greeks should not have borrowed so much, but neither should their lenders have kept throwing money at them, in the knowledge that they were almost certainly not creditworthy. Absolutising and protecting the ideal of a united Europe at all costs opened the door to serious abuses, since there is enormous moral hazard due to the lengths that members will go to in order to protect that union. Creditors could and did lend with impunity, knowing that Greece was, like the banks in the preceding crisis, too big to fail. Consequently the bill had to be picked up by other people – namely taxpayers.
Taking a step back from specific cases like Greece, the question of debt and money highlights a far deeper one about identity and culture. What kind of a union are we a member of? And what kind of club do we want to be a part of? The purpose of the EU – implicitly if not explicitly – has surely shifted over the past several decades.
These questions of sovereignty and identity are given yet further relevance by the issue of immigration.
Immigration has been a key part of the argument to stay in or leave Europe since at least the early 90s, with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty (which included the concept of EU citizenship), when net migration turned positive and then started to increase rapidly. At this point it effectively became impossible to prevent EU citizens from travelling to and settling in the UK. With the inclusion of the A8 countries into the EU 2004 (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia), a large influx of immigration occurred from these comparatively poorer Eastern European countries to wealthier nations, including the UK. Although numbers of economic migrants temporarily decreased during the recession, they are now higher than ever before. (Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007 and at the end of 2013 so-called ‘transitional controls’ restricting access to the UK labour market were lifted, though the predicted surge of migrants from these two countries did not happen.)
Whilst the reality of hundreds of thousands of economic migrants freely entering the UK – and potentially competing with native Brits for jobs, public services and benefits – has been contentious for years, the recent refugee crisis has proved an acute reminder of the problems of uncontrolled immigration.
The Bible says little about border controls or immigration, but it says a lot about migrants. We tend to categorise migrants in terms of their reason for entry: work, study, family, seeking asylum, and so on (where possible – in the case of EU migrants, who can move freely, the reason has to be inferred). The Bible looks at the question from the point of view of need and intention.
There are, broadly, only two categories of migrant found in the Bible: the ger and the nokri. The ger is typically described as someone who lives on the edges of society, potentially marginalised and vulnerable. They may broadly correspond to today’s refugee or low-paid economic migrant. They are people who have no family or land of their own, who live hand-to-mouth and are reliant on the goodwill of native Israelites. They are frequently mentioned alongside other marginalised and landless groups who need extra protection. ‘This is what the Lord Almighty said: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.”’ (Zechariah 7:9-10) The ger was generally willing to integrate into Israelite life, and in almost every respect was to be treated the same as a native Israelite (Leviticus 19:34). The Israelites were constantly reminded to look after the alien, ‘because you were foreigners in Egypt’ (Exodus 22:21). The early Church, too, are characterised as ‘aliens and strangers in the world’ (1 Peter 2:11). As Christians, we should identify with migrants, not feeling entirely at home in the world, with its secular culture and very different ideals to our own.
Then there was the nokri, the ‘true’ foreigner – someone who was culturally and financially independent, whose allegiances lay outside of Israel and who potentially represented a threat to its culture and religion. There are numerous warnings about nokri women and gods leading the Israelites astray, often in combination – as was the case with Solomon’s many foreign wives (1 Kings 11). The Bible is far more wary of the nokri, for these reasons, though welcomes those who genuinely want to become a part of Israel, particularly after the exile. Analogous groups today might include the higher-paid and temporary economic migrant, those who refuse to integrate in a meaningful way, and arguably even wealthy individuals and corporations who domicile themselves outside of the UK to avoid paying tax.
Whilst the present discussion tends to focus on the economic benefits, or otherwise, of allowing different categories of migrants into the country, the Bible is more concerned about whether someone from another country is willing to integrate with Israelite culture and religion, or whether they are a threat to the country’s identity. It is also concerned to ensure that the poor and vulnerable are protected, rather than those who are already able to help themselves.
There are good arguments, from a biblical point of view, both for remaining within and leaving the EU.
The ideal of decentralising decision-making to the lowest appropriate level, rather than unnecessarily concentrating power, provides a guiding principle in the framework for approaching the question of EU membership. Essentially, Subsidiarity states that a task should be undertaken by the group that is best placed to do it. There are, clearly, some things that must be addressed at the international level. In a global society, organised crime and threats to security are better tackled as part of a larger body that reflects the cross-border nature of the issue at stake.
However, there are also issues that are better dealt with at the national and local level, and giving powers away to Brussels undermines the sovereignty and autonomy of the UK. In doing so, it unnecessarily denies individuals, businesses and the UK as a whole agency and control over their own circumstances. It is a distant authority, unaccountable for all practical purposes to those it is supposed to serve.
The ideal outcome would, of course, be to reform the EU so that it genuinely reflects the principle of subsidiarity, allowing member countries greater say in running their own affairs whilst providing central administration and decision-making for tasks that require greater oversight. If this does not happen, or does not happen to the desired extent, then the question becomes one of whether the current unnecessary centralisation of power is a price worth paying for the benefits of remaining in the EU. This includes the unbalanced relationships that surround the finances of the EU, and the way that debt opens the way to an even greater loss of sovereign power.
Similarly, there is the question of whether we can best address the issue of migration – both the waves of economic migrants and refugees moving across Europe – from within or outside the EU. Withdrawing from the EU would allow us full control over our own borders, though this is a power that we could easily end up abusing, turning a blind eye to the needs of those the Bible instructs us to care for.
Paul Mills and Michael Schluter, ‘Should Christians support the Euro?’ (Cambridge Papers vol. 7 no. 4, December 1998.) See online at http://www.jubilee-centre.org/should-christians-support-the-euro/
Immigration and Justice (Jubilee Centre, 2015). Available at http://www.jubilee-centre.org/immigration-and-justice-booklet/
TBA: Immigration (Jubilee Centre, 2015). Available online at http://www.jubilee-centre.org/tba-immigration/
 Britain Stronger in Europe campaign website.
 E.g. the Code of Hammurabi.