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16 June 2016

Soul for the Union

In or out? It's the question that has dominated media coverage, political debates and our everyday conversations in the UK for the past few months.

Last Monday evening, with just over a week until the UK decides whether it should remain in or leave the European Union, over one hundred people turned out at the Agape Centre in South Belfast to engage with A Soul for the Union - a faith-based perspective on the EU referendum.

At the event hosted by Contemporary Christianity and supported by the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland, Ben Ryan from Theos think tank sought to reframe the debate as he shared his reflections on the European project from his recent writings. Speakers, Colin Harvey and Esmond Birnie, were then asked to respond, offering a Northern Irish perspective to the conversation. The evening ended by opening the floor for questions, chaired by Rev David Campton of Belfast South Methodist Church. This was not a for-and-against debate as such, but there was a healthy divergence and diversity of opinion on the issues raised by the referendum from a Christian view-point.

From the outset, the overwhelming sentiment voiced by hosts, attendees and speakers alike was a weariness and wariness of perceived scaremongering, self-interest and confusing statistics from both sides of this highly contested EU referendum debate.

Keynote speaker, Ben Ryan, purposefully avoided the road most travelled in the run up to the referendum, that is an economic assessment of the EU. He criticised both the Remain and Leave camps for reducing the conversation to purely economic arguments, something he says is self-destructive. In fact he tried to stay clear of the referendum altogether in his keynote speech. Instead, he suggested that the current debate in the UK is symptomatic of a much wider problem, and set out to offer a different vision of and for Europe and the EU that goes beyond economics and national interest.

The European project was never intended to simply be a free market, as Ben reminded the audience. Its core values of solidarity, subsidiarity and an explicitly moral vision meant that the EU was intended for much more than economic gain. Following decades of war and unrest in Europe, the EU was a moral project that sought transnational solutions to issues that states had been unable to solve on their own. However, changes in our circumstances (we no longer face immediate threat of world war) and a relative failure of the EU to live up to these three core values has meant that the vision, purpose and functioning of the EU has come under scrutiny. Ben suggests that the need for transnational solutions and morality in our world is increasing not decreasing, however if we are to have faith in the EU then we must commit to putting the soul back into the European project.

In his response, Professor of Human Rights Law at Queen's University Belfast, Colin Harvey, urged a similar commitment. Reflecting on Ben Ryan's report from a human rights perspective, he acknowledged the need to ask the EU to live up its original values and suggested that, as with any institution, we should try to participate, persuade and persevere. We must, he suggested, persuade by deed as much by words; we ought to live out the universal values set in ink by the various treaties of the EU. He finished his response by quoting Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union and asked, "tell me if the EU is living up to those foundational values?"

"The union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom,democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the member states in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice,solidarity and equality between women and men prevail."

Article 2, Treaty on the European Union

Chief economist for PWC Scotland and NI, Esmond Birnie was speaking from a personal perspective. While he agreed with Ben Ryan's assertions against a purely economic debate on the EU, he offered a response from an economic perspective. He suggested that even with short term uncertainty and slow economic growth in the long term as a result of leaving the EU, the non-economic advantages of leaving may outweigh the economic cost. He also emphasized that, whichever way the vote goes, we will still have considerable economic and social problems, none of which will change by remaining or leaving the EU. Turning to Ben Ryan's report, Esmond disagreed with the argument that the EU can be reformed. Rather, as he later suggested, he wants to see the 'soul' described in the report being developed as a much wider belief throughout the continent of Europe and not limited to the EU.

As the evening drew to a close, there was a sense that the conversation would not, and should not, end there. Colin Harvey summed up this sentiment when he said the worst thing to come out of this debate would be that the vote on the 23rd June would signify one big constitutional moment yet would signal the end of a much-needed wider conversation for another 30 years. While the evening's speakers remained in disagreement over the question of future reform - Ben Ryan argued that reform is possible and the UK can be part of that reform while Esmond Birnie remained sceptical that the European project is indeed reformable - Colin Harvey took the time to warn against complacency over the EU question. We have come to take peace for granted and hold on to a belief that everything will work out well in the end. For our future, and the future of the world, we must remember the origins of the EU and continue to hold it to its foundational values.

As you continue to consider the future of the EU, and our place in it, here are three questions that may help you:

1.  What can either the Remain or Leave arguments offer for the flourishing of the people of Europe and beyond?

2.  What kind of people and place do we hope to become, and what role will our membership in the EU have in realising that vision?

3.  Since God blesses nations in order to make them a blessing to others, how can we look beyond our own national interest and be a blessing to others?

A recording of the event will be made available soon on the Contemporary Christianity website: www.contemporarychristianity.net

If you're interested in reading more of Ben Ryan's report, 'A soul for the union', you can find it here: http://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/publications/2016/01/21/a-soul-for-the-union


 (Written by Zoe Rogers, intern at Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland)