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13 June 2016

What has Brussels got to do with Jerusalem?

What has Brussels got to do with Jerusalem?

by Ben Ryan, researcher at Theos and the author of A Soul for the Union.

The EU referendum battlefield is a dreary and depressing place – and one in which the Christian observer might be forgiven for seeing little of relevance to Christianity. It's a game of complicated economic calculations, technical denseness, hard to interpret trade predictions and obtuse legal arrangements, sprinkled with an intersecting – though rarely clear cut – concern over immigration. All of which might leave us wondering, to paraphrase Tertullian: "What has Brussels to do with Jerusalem?"

That we are left wondering that is a mark of failure on the part of the EU, but also on behalf of Christians. It's a failure for the EU because it ought to have far more to say on issues that extend well beyond the economic and technical. It's a failure by Christians because the original vision for the European project was, in point of fact, a Christian vision – in the words of the academic Scott Thomas the project was "an act of theo-political imagination".

That might seem a bold claim. The EU has always, after all, had an economic element to it and unquestionably had among its architects a number of socialist thinkers. In more recent times Christians have been perturbed by particular policies – or proposed policies – on gay marriage, abortion and stem cell research.

Nevertheless, today's EU owes its origins to a radically Christian model. The 1950s European project came about under the direct hegemonic influence of a group of Christian Democrat politicians. Alcide de Gasperi, the Italian prime minister, Konrad Adenauer, the West German chancellor, Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister, Jean Monnet, the 'Father of the European project' and a host of other leaders were all Catholic Christian Democrats and utterly convinced of a particular Christian Democrat future for Europe. 

Together, and with the encouragement of the Pope, they and other representatives of their parties had met throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1950s in the wake of world war and in a position of unprecedented political power they were able to bring forward a vision of a new Europe. This vision was based on the principles of peace, solidarity, subsidiarity, and living and working conditions. All of them added up to an overall commitment to a moral, even spiritual mission.

Peace was an obvious element, but the vision of solidarity and subsidiarity owe much to Catholic social teaching. The very term, subsidiarity, which at its most basic is the idea that political decisions should be taken as locally as possible, unless they require a broader, more international solution, is taken explicitly from a papal encyclical. The commitment to the improvement of living and working conditions was predicated in large part on a Christian conception of human dignity. This aspect owed much to Protestant Christian democrats, particularly in Germany.

The tragedy of Europe is that it has betrayed that original moral vision. As a force for peace, it was impotent as humanitarian disasters unfolded on its doorstep in Bosnia and Kosovo. As a force for solidarity, the response to the Eurozone crisis has been to impose brutal austerity measures on a few countries for the sake of propping up short-term economic performance. Despite a commitment to subsidiarity, there is far too much centrally imposed policy, sometimes in direct defiance of democratic will. Finally on living and working conditions, despite decades of success in the area, today EU policies have directly contributed towards a situation in which 45 per cent of Greek pensioners live below the poverty line and six member states have youth unemployment in excess of 30 per cent. 

In place of the original focus on a moral mission and political goal that in Adenauer's words "far outstrips the economic goals", we have allowed a situation to develop in which the market is the undisputed king. All other principles for which Europe stands – or stood – have been made subservient to a particular brand of neoliberal economic orthodoxy. This hollowing out of the original values ultimately weakens the EU. If the whole raison d'être is simply economic then it dooms the EU to being nothing more than a fair weather operation – popular only so long as the economy continues to improve. Since economic performance is variable and can decline, this leaves the EU fundamentally vulnerable.

Herein lies the issue on which Christians ought to be speaking up. Behind the technical details and the economic clothing politics, the way we live together is fundamentally about values. Once upon a time Christians recognised that and built a European project that was meant to be the embodiment of a new politics. The task of Christians today – whether they are in favour of remain or Brexit – is to bring that commitment back into the public square. We must speak up for a vision of the world grounded not in economics, but in morality, values, perhaps even spirituality. 

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