A future for the UK in the EU: is there a Christian case?
Why do I think British Christians should be concerned about a referendum on the UK's relationship with the EU? Let me discuss with you for a while what I think the main issues are.
02 MARCH 2015 · 08:35 CET
The following article is based on a speech which Sue Bird gave at a meeting organised by the "Faith in Europe" group in London.
We live in interesting times.
2015 is election year in the UK. The result of the election is as wide-open as perhaps it has ever been. The Conservatives and Labour are likely to be neck-and-neck, while the Liberal Democrats have lost much of their support because of perceived betrayals conceived through coalition government. Then there are the other parties. The Scottish Nationalists are on a high in Scotland. The Green Party is making its voice heard. Finally, there is the great unknown – the UK Independence Party.
It could be the case that while either the Conservatives or Labour win the most votes, they will be reliant on one of the other parties to create a majority within coalition. What if the king-maker was UKIP? What conditions would UKIP extract for this to happen? Would the UK be faced with an earlier referendum on its future in the European Union than had previously been thought?
Even if Christ invited us to find our rest in Him – and I do - being a UK national who is pro-European, and also because I am a Christian, I find this all very worrying.
Why do I think British Christians should be concerned about a referendum on the UK's relationship with the EU? Let me discuss with you for a while what I think the main issues are.
Firstly, I doubt that many Christians in the UK are aware of the background of the so-called "founding fathers" of the EU. Among them was senior French civil servant Jean Monnet, a Roman Catholic, and head of the first European institution. There was French Minister Robert Schuman, who was inspired by Catholic social thought and first President of the European Parliament. And Germany's Konrad Adenauer, founder of the Protestant and Catholic Christian Democratic Union and Chancellor at the time of the formation of the EU, was equally influential.
All were committed to seeking peace in Europe following the horrors of the second of two worlds wars during the twentieth century. Some people think that this "raison d'être" for the EU has had its day. For me personally, on the contrary, it still remains absolutely relevant.
Let me expand on this.
A couple of weeks ago we saw horrific killings of employees of a Paris magazine and in a supermarket at the hands of radicals in the name of Islam. A Jewish museum in Brussels was targeted in a similar way early on in 2014. The UK experienced its own episode when an army private was killed in London. And then there was Norway also…… In each of these cases, the EU leaders joined together to express their dismay at violence and conflict, and vowed to work together to eliminate such happenings from our lives and societies. This, for me, is the solid foundation, the bottom line of working together within an EU: Member States that stand by each other in times of crisis, and subsequently look for appropriate ways to pursue peace, mutual solidarity and justice through common modes of interaction.
My second point concerns the UK as part of an EU which itself is a regional power globally. Interdependence of economies and societies through globalisation has been picking up pace for many years. Gone are the days when nation states could hold their own single-handedly in international negotiations. The UK needs the EU's diplomatic service to coordinate views across 28 Member States, and represent the common view in a focussed way in international fora. This common view carries more weight than if each Member State represented its own view only. And the EU is at the forefront of efforts to strive for an inclusive, respectful, and also prosperous world.
Thirdly, I believe Christians broadly look for free trade that is fair.
Within the European Union, the so-called EU internal market has 500 million customers. It is the largest economy in the world, generating 34% of world trade. 3.5 million UK jobs are linked to the internal market, and the growth in trade has generated about £3,300 per British household per year over the last 30 years. 40% of UK exports go to other parts of the EU and they are tariff-free. These have been the benefits of free trade (ie trade that is open and rule-based), where the EU has made strenuous efforts over the years to reduce or eliminate all sorts of administrative and financial barriers to this trade.
The EU recognises that free trade - even if open and rule-based - does not always work out as fair. So the EU decision-takers decided many years ago that a free internal market needed to be complemented by policies that encourage "cohesion", or internal economic consistency. Regional and social economic development funds were consequently brought in, which finance projects – particularly in less-developed parts of the EU, including those in the UK such as its inner cities – that stimulate private enterprise, the building of new infrastructures (roads or environmental improvements, for example), or that provide training for unemployed people.
Trade policy also covers the environment external to the EU. Member States have asked the EU to negotiate trade agreements with international regional and state partners on their behalf, which represents an influential "competence" that the EU has acquired. This is a clear example of where Member States acting collectively can use strong bargaining power to achieve good deals for European citizens and consumers.
But again - and arguably even more so in rich-poor global context – the EU also pays attention to trade being fair at the international level as well as free.
I know from my own work on corporate social responsibility with the European Commission that we are increasingly incorporating sustainable development and corporate social responsibility clauses into our trade agreements.
And in parallel to our internal EU cohesion assistance, the EU is also the biggest donor of development aid in the world. We seek to alleviate poverty by providing funding for fledgling enterprises and infrastructure development in the developing world. We also provide humanitarian aid via certain non-governmental organisations that include those with a Christian affiliation.
The EU has been active over the years in securing the partial fulfilment of the Millenium Development Goals. We are equally active in negotiating a successor regime with the United Nations and international partners, which will focus on the environment and sustainable development as well as include a continued focus on poverty reduction. I have been involved personally recently in a possible initiative on responsible supply chains in the textiles and garment industry. This is a response to the collapse of a factory in Dhaka in Bangladesh, in 2013, which you may remember from the media headlines at the time. 2015 is the European Year of Development, coming at a time when a recent survey shows substantial support among European citizens for development cooperation.
So, having covered the EU peace dividend, external diplomacy around inclusiveness, and free and fair trade, my fourth point concerns Christian care for creation – ie EU policies on the environment. Climate change events - like contagious diseases – do not respect national borders. It makes sense for the UK to be part of a European Union that has commonly agreed ways of working together, so that, for example, shared standards can reduce carbon emissions or pooled research and development resources can create new energy-saving technologies. Indeed, if Member States were to go it alone on issues such as the environment, there would be the risk that a lack of coordination would lead to individual countries pursuing what might turn out to be contradictory goals.
My fifth point covers the key issue of human rights. Pope Francis, in his speech to the European Parliament in November 2014, covered the point well by connecting human rights with the dignity, sacredness and value of the individual – not in a transactional society governed by a one-sided exercise of rights for maximum gain, but in a society that values the individual in relationship with others. The European Court of Human Rights plays an important role in securing rights to food and housing, to lack of discrimination, to freedom from violence, and others. Importantly for Christians, it upholds freedom of expression and the freedom to hold a religious belief. Some in the UK would like their country to leave the ECHR. Would this be wise, I ask myself?
My sixth and final point in this part of my speech is about the so-called "European Social Model". Parallel to the cohesion funding I mentioned above, it aims to foster equitable working and social environments. This is broadly my own area of expertise in the job that I have with the European Commission. The body of policies and legislation (the so-called "acquis") in this area covers employment, health, diversity and other issues. It also covers the most thorny area of the UK's relationship with the EU – free movement of people and workers.
I don't need to remind you of the sometimes frenetic debate on this issue in the British media recently. On the one hand, there is no doubt that immigrant workers from other parts of the EU bring net benefits to the UK economy. On the other hand, there probably have been certain abuses of a relatively generous benefits system through the "milking" of what is available legally and as the case may be, illegally. Again, on the one hand, many politicians and commentators now routinely use terminology such as "mass migration" to describe the current state of movement of people and workers from the EU to the UK. On the other hand, a European Commission report confirms that people moving around the EU represent a miniscule percentage of the total population.
We would do well to remember what the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said in October last year: "all human beings are of absolutely equal and infinite value and the language we use must reflect the value of the human being and not treat immigration as a deep menace". He was concerned about the potential underlying racial overtones of a heated debate that risked getting out-of-hand.
Freedom of movement will be key to any re-negotiation that the UK undertakes with its European partners prior to the proposed referendum on the UK's relationship with the EU. Prime Minister David Cameron has mentioned the possibility of change to the European Union Treaty to achieve the tightening of provisions that he would like. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, probably represents the majority view among other Member States in parrying that suggestion.
No-one knows the answer. Maybe attention could be given to the following though:
- Rely on the existing legislation to the extent possible – which makes provision for acting against any abuses.
- If the concern is the undercutting of existing collective agreements on workers' rights, this is covered by the recently-adapted Posting of Workers Directive.
- If the concern is taking away "British jobs", then better train British workers.
- If there are localised social consequences to the settling of migrants then use, for example, the European Social Fund to mitigate the effects.
- Learn from other Member States. Germany has had similar issues but is dealing with it differently and within EU rules.
So let me put my own cards on the table. I have a vested interest in the UK-EU debate, as do 2.2 million other UK nationals who are resident in EU Member States outside the UK. In my case, I do not yet know whether or not I would keep my job with the European Commission if the UK were to leave the EU. However, as you might expect, intellectually and emotionally, I am in any case fully "pro-EU".
But the EU is not always a bed of roses, and we should always look for improvements.
There is a tension – and not necessarily an unhealthy one – at the heart of the EU on the question of subsidiarity, a concept which has its origins in Catholic social norms. Subsidiarity is about who does what, and at what level of governance. It is another key issue for the UK. For example, EU Member States have given themselves the job of monitoring and acting in competition policy on their behalf, whereas they have largely allocated education provision to themselves. Without stretching the analogy too far, and quoting my article to the Anglican Church Times a year ago, this reminds me of the healthy "vine and the branches" of John chapter 15, ie unity at the centre, but diversity in working out our relationships with each other.
Those relationships do need working at though. The UK government is intent on a "re-negotiation" of the UK's relationship with the EU, before a referendum on membership. In the context of any re-negotiation, the government is concerned about a number of issues. I would dare to suggest that some of these issues are even now being dealt with.
The UK will be concerned about access to and continued development of the internal market including digital services. Well, this is being mainstreamed in the 2015 Work Programme of the European Commission under new President Jean-Claude Juncker. The UK is concerned about achieving a new trade agreement with the United States (the so-called TTIP). Well, discussions are in hand to advance on this, even if careful handling will be necessary. The UK would like to prevent nationals from any would-be new Member States from entering the UK during the first years of their membership. Well, President Juncker has committed to proposing no new EU members over his five-year mandate. And the UK would like to see the European Commission work more effectively and efficiently. Well, we now have a number of Vice-Presidents as well as "ordinary" Commissioners in place who will act as a filter mechanism for new proposals, as well as weeding out old ones that no longer fit the bill. The first such Vice-President has specific charge of this "better regulation".
Currently, the public debate on the UK's relationship with the EU is misleadingly represented by only the immigration issue. Or the UK's contribution to the EU budget – which is 0.4% of the size of the UK's economy. When will the true story come out, I keep asking myself? May 2015 is not very far away! This is why it is important that groups such as Faith in Europe exist because, as you are doing today, you bring a better balance to the debate. You therefore give Christians and others fuller information about the UK and its relationship with the EU, so that they will hopefully be able to make a better-informed decision in advance of any referendum. So let me encourage you to get involved! Do think about campaigning - through leafleting, letter-writing, advocacy meetings, etc. Do organise debates. Do ask to see decision-takers. Do talk to family and friends. Do invest in social media! Take the opportunity to offer a specifically Christian perspective and therefore witness to your faith through this work.
I belong to an organisation in Brussels called Pro Europa, made up of mainly British nationals who are passionate about the UK remaining in the EU. We exist to help groups such as yourselves, not least because we are on top of what happens in Brussels and can filter that information through both our European and UK eyes.
I realise that Christians will not always agree on whether the UK should remain a member of the EU or not, and indeed Christians are also members of the UK Independence Party. In its advocacy UKIP supports, for example, "taking Britain out of a secular EU", putting an end to political correctness, making St George's Day a national holiday of celebration, and ending "flawed multiculturism", as part of its defence of England's "Christian homeland". Be that as it may. However, whether we are talking about placing perhaps restrictive limits on immigration, supposedly obstructive European "bureaucracy", or placing well-established EU powers back in UK hands, I cannot go along with these anti-EU policy examples.
Drawing myself towards a conclusion, I have attempted to cover the issues for Christians to particularly think about in any UK/EU referendum. There are other things also. Not least how the EU secures energy for all its citizens during the winter in the face of Ukraine's conflict with Russia, how we marry up a jobs and growth agenda with keeping the lid on public debt, or how financial services can continue to thrive while discussions advance on a financial transactions tax (an issue of concern to the UK in particular)……
I come back to my Church Times article, where I cite Romans chapter 12, verse 18, as it encapsulates for me what my Christian duty is concerning the relationship of the UK with the EU. This verse says: "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone". And the outcome of a referendum does indeed depend on you (or me). If I have a vote in any referendum (this is not sure as I am not resident in the UK), I will vote for my country to remain a full member of the EU and to engage positively with it. I said at the beginning of this presentation that the EU is at its roots concerned about peace, mutual solidarity and justice, within a prosperity-promoting context. The UK needs to buy into this project whole-heartedly, in my view, as a failure to do so might have implications for other of its inter-state relations, or indeed for politics internal to the UK. These are fundamental issues. Christians in the UK need to be at the forefront of a pro- message.
Sue Bird is a Policy Coordinator at the European Commission's Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills, and Labour Mobility. She is Lay Vice-Chair of the Council of Holy Trinity Pro-Cathedral in Brussels. She is a member of the Steering Group of Pro Europa, an organisation bringing together mainly British, Brussels-based professionals who are working to ensure that the UK remains in the EU.
The views expressed in this document do not represent the views of the European Commission nor of Holy Trinity Brussels, and are those of the author alone.