The EU Debate: A Primer in Political Theology

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A small village church in North Oxfordshire. I conduct the funeral of an 89-year-old lady originally born in Germany. The eulogy begins with a quote from Hildegard of Bingen – a namesake – continues with a reading in German by a member of her family, and closes as we leave the church to the strains of Edelweiss. She has two families present, her German one from her first marriage, and an English one from her second marriage to an American and their life together in the UK from the late 1960s. Earlier in the day a discussion with a young mum whose two-year old son is awaiting a bone marrow transplant. Now a potential donor has been identified they wait for further tests. I learn that donors now come from all over the world, but that many are from Germany as they have built this principle of donorship into their culture from school age onwards. This is confirmed by a radio programme at lunchtime talking about how the UK needs to emulate this. Another report on staff shortages in the National Health Service comments that over 60% of NHS trusts try to recruit from abroad. So are we not all global now? Do we not all need each other for a whole host of reasons that go beyond the purely economic or political?

When I was a teenager and all the talk was about The Common Market – an early version of the EU – I was instinctively in favour of the European project. I still am, as it has always seemed to me a positive and necessary way forward and an appropriate response to a Europe that tore itself apart in two world wars. On June 23rd the UK must vote whether to remain in the EU or to withdraw (Brexit as it is being called!). Political theology has a stake in this as it impacts upon issues of democracy, the role of the nation-state in an era of increased globalization, and indeed the ways in which religion apparently feeds into the sources of conflict which are just beneath the surface of European life. As has been argued in a recent publication, faith groups can make a positive contribution to counteracting religiously inflected violence through cooperation at the level of civil society, but this dimension is sadly lacking from the current Brexit discussions.

So what appear to be the key issues in the debate?

First, whether or not there is going to be a move towards ever closer political union and the creation of a United States of Europe. It is clear from the terms negotiated by the Prime Minister that the UK would not be part of this, just as there is no appetite for joining the Euro, even though many believe that the common currency could only be effective within a closer political structure.

Second, how trade relationships and terms and conditions of tariffs on exports would function if the UK withdrew. This is a difficult matter to judge and is a matter of conjecture on both sides of the debate. Just as no one can say how Europe would have looked had there been no EU, so no one can say with any certainty how it would look should one of its major members decide to exit and renegotiate the basis for its economic transactions. Listening to the comments of other European leaders, there is obviously a concern that if one member country leaves and then renegotiates what might appear to be more advantageous terms, others countries might decide to do the same and then the whole EU begins to unravel.

Third, the vexed issue of immigration, but given that workers can cross borders anyway, it is difficult to see how this can be addressed either within the existing arrangements or under any new regime.

Fourth, the question of greater control over welfare payments within the UK, and it would appear that the recent negotiations have delivered what the Prime Minister wanted, although his opponents within his own party are less convinced. Fifth, a concern about security and whether or not the UK would be more susceptible to terrorist attacks if it remains in the EU, although much of this is again the result of media speculation rather than hard evidence. Finally perhaps, the concern for business over ever more intrusive and expensive governance and regulation requirements, particularly for small businesses rather than larger organisations, and, again, the claim is that this will be addressed through the new negotiated settlements.

The problem in making an informed and balanced assessment, is that each contributor to the debate approaches it with their own economic and political interests in mind and therefore the uncommitted have little in the way of wider or objective evidence to go on. Even those who argue on economic grounds that the UK would be better off out of the EU tend to admit that the evidence is inconclusive. Both clear-cut and unforeseen consequences of a Brexit are difficult to predict in detail. One can argue that the current EU structures are wasteful, inefficient, and have grown beyond the scale that was originally envisaged, but one cannot know what might have existed had the EU not taken shape as it has. One could also suggest that economic power blocs based on geographical proximity are rapidly becoming a thing of the past given greater globalization since the original vision behind the EU, but this again requires staring into an unknown and uncertain future.

Faced with 3 months of interminable media coverage and political grandstanding on the issue, most of us reach for the sedatives and hope that we can find something else to talk about. Sadly this tells us more about the state of UK (and European and US?) politics than it does about the substantive issues. The Conservative Party in the UK (and therefore the current administration) has always been divided over Europe. So now we have the unedifying scenes of a party tearing itself apart once again whilst pretending to preside over a coherent foreign policy. The “debate” has already been dumbed down to a battle between the current Prime Minister and one of his potential successors (Boris Johnson, Mayor of London), plus other cabinet members who have now declared against remaining in the EU. Great media coverage, but poor politics! What is really depressing though is that both sides in the conflict present their arguments in largely negative terms. One flags up the inherent dangers to security and sovereignty by staying in, the other the threats to economic stability and wider influence by coming out. I have yet to hear a truly positive argument for doing either! Based on those current arguments I find it difficult to identify with either the pro or anti parties.

Is it possible to shift the debate to a more coherent political, let alone theological level? What should be at stake in this? This from Douzinas and Zizek from a recent book on the Idea of Communism commenting on the positive aspirations of Habermas and Beck for the EU:

The Union is no longer a model but a dysfunctional organization of fanatical right-wing government and supine social democrats imposing unprecedented austerity measures, unemployment and poverty on working people in order to return to ‘fiscal discipline’. All pretense of social solidarity and justice, always an exaggerated assertion of the EU, has been abandoned……Socialism for the banks, capitalism for the poor became the modus vivendi of the 2000s”. [1]

In other words, the whole project is now so corrupt and dominated by the neo-liberal agenda that it is beyond redemption. Quite what the alternative might be is less obvious, and one cannot imagine that appeals to return to the communist idea, in whatever form, are going to be a factor in the forthcoming vote! However, as an extreme left response to the whole project, such criticisms have to be taken seriously.

What does Habermas have to say?  He refers to Europe as “the faltering project” and suggests that the problem of the inadequate decision-making power of the EU involves 3 urgent issues. First, global economic conditions militate against the capacity of nation states to draw upon the taxation revenues they need to meet social welfare claims and for collective goods and services. Demographics and immigration – now one of the major challenges facing the EU with questions of hospitality and fortress Europe – aggravate this, and require that the EU recuperate its lost regulatory power at the supranational level. Then there is the pressing question of foreign policy and relationships with the other global power blocs, especially the USA, Russia and China, not to mention the conflicts in the Middle East which have spread into Europe. Can the EU offer a genuine alternative to these? Third is the status of the EU within NATO and, once again, the issue of whether it can represent a different approach to that of the USA and what Habermas calls “a loosening of the normative standards” which used to inform its (USA’s) government policy. [2]

Such a level of debate setting the vision of the EU in a wider global context has yet to appear in the run up to the UK referendum. Perhaps it now seems wildly idealistic, but it surely has to figure as an ethical as well as political dimension of the discussion. Europe as a project is indeed faltering, but given the challenges we now face in terms of climate change, its impact upon future migration, plus current security issues and deeper economic instability, is there not still some validity in a vision that goes beyond the purely internal nation-state agenda? If faith groups have a positive role to play in this, it is surely that of widening the scope of the debate and getting people to lift their eyes above the immediate self-interest horizon in order to see the ways in which we need each other and must work together.

A whole dimension that appears to be missing from the debate so far is the role of Civil Society and its impacts upon wider political and economic culture, and it is here that faith groups also have a contribution to make and should have a voice in the debate. Yes there is the question of a wider political vision, but there also has to be concern for the local and regional as represented by those intermediate structures that are more in touch with most people’s lives than national politics. As described in my opening examples, the reality is that we are already fully entangled and interconnected on a whole series of different levels or assemblages, and there has to be an infrastructure that supports and enables these in positive ways. My instincts have not changed, although knowing how best to operationalize the vision has become ever more complex and demanding.

[1] Edited by Costas Douzinas & Slavoj Zizek. The Idea of Communism. Verso, London, 2010 Pvii

[2] Jurgen Habermas. Europe: The Faltering Project. Polity Press, Cambridge UK, 2010. P57-8.

7 thoughts on “The EU Debate: A Primer in Political Theology

  1. You mention 5 issues in the UK debate about Brexit. I am not surprised, but I am dismayed, that there isn’t a mention of a 6th issue – that issue being the creation for the first time of a hard land border between the U.K. and the E.U. and how that would operate.

    As this is a political theology blog I would have thought that this issue would be important to consider as the very existence of the U.K.’s land border is deeply entwined with the conflating of religious identity and of political – national identity.

  2. If you follow the hyperlink to “recent publication” as above there is material which attempts to address this issue in greater detail. It does also get a passing mention as issue number 3, but hardly an exhaustive exploration inevitably.

  3. A reasoned and reasonable comment.
    But for Hildegard of Bingen and her contemporaries there was a single unifying and uniting European experience: that of a shared faith. There was no need to impose upon the crowns and nations a stultifying, undemocratic, fraudulent, corporatist, bureaucratic directorate composed of overpaid, incompetent, failed politicians and not-yet-imprisoned charlatans.
    And the various national entities were not required to pay for the privilege of being shafted by their overlords, nor expected to import wholesale those who were determined to destroy them, their faith, and their nations.

  4. Inevitably, as with Donal above, readers will want to add to your 5 issues in the UK debate. I was very surprised that you missed out what is issue number one for most ‘leave EU’ campaigners, namely the lack democracy in the current EU arrangements. This has been the central issue for years. We don’t get to vote for the executive of the EU, and yet it makes many decisions affecting our lives. The equivalent of an EU ‘foreign minister’ appointed a few years ago was a British woman, Catherine Ashton, who had never undergone a democratic election in her entire political career. The EU’s poor foreign policy-making was an important causal factor of the war in Ukraine, but no democratic accountability at all.
    Theologically, the key issue for me is love and the kingdom of God, in all its justice and mercy. The institutional arrangement of the EU seems to make very little contribution in this regard. Political power is at its most repressive and dangerous when it is unaccountable and concentrated. Britain leaving the EU would not mean breaking off relations between the people of Britain and European countries, nor between the people of faith in Britain and Europe. It might indeed facilitate a more even-handed relationship between Britain and the wider world, including for example the once central, now neglected relationship with the British Commonwealth.

  5. I’m glad that the blog has stirred up some responses! As it says though, when even such ardent pro-Europeans as Habermas refer to the EU as a “faltering project”, all is not well, and the democratic deficit is obviously a factor in that. Talking to people who are genuinely undecided, the challenge is knowing how to make an informed decision, particularly when so much of the debate, on both sides, is presented in negative terms. Is the democratic deficit in the EU any worse than that currently in the UK and don’t we need a more general debate about “democracy” and its relationships to “faith”? I note the move to scrap parent governors in schools in the UK and wonder where this fits into that picture?

  6. Although I live in Kent, I have had the pleasure of attending services at several of the churches in your delightful benefice over the last couple of years as part of a pilgrimage I have been undertaking across part of England.

    Thank you for this very cogent and illuminating piece. It is now fairly evident that the leave campaign is essentially a ramp for those who would wish to restrain immigration. That non-EU ‘link’ immigration is invariably larger and is often of less satisfactory quality is somewhat inconvenient to the leave cause, but it is still the case that the immigration from the EU experienced over the last generation is larger in both absolute and relative terms than at any time in the history of the British isles. Even in times of robust growth this might well have caused disquiet, but in an epoch where the bargaining power of labour is already weak, and the cost of access to shelter has escalated to an alarming and insupportable degree, the benefits of free movement within member states have become ever more doubtful, not least because the EU has proved itself to be very permeable to migration from outside its frontiers and is only as strong as its weakest link.

    I could go on at some length about this, but will just cite one rather acute observation made by, Henry Calvert Simons, an original and influential economist during the last war (I hold no particular candle for the Chicago school, but Simons’ views cannot be shoe-horned easily into any left/right stereotype):

    “As regards immigration policies, the less said the better. It may be hoped that world prosperity, increased political security, and ultimate leveling of birth rates may diminish migration pressures. Wholly free migration, however, is neither attainable politically nor desirable. To insist that a free-trade program is logically or practically incomplete without free migration, is either disingenuous or stupid. Free trade may and should raise living standards everywhere (and more if transportation were costless). Free migration would level standards, perhaps without raising them anywhere (especially if transportation were costless) – not to mention the sociological and political problems of assimilation. Equal treatment in immigration policy, or abandonment of discrimination, should likewise not be held out as purpose or hope.” (The American Economic Review, v. 33, no. 1, pt 2 (March 1943), 431-45 at 439).

    We also come back to the Habbakuk thesis: improved living standards are validated by productivity gains; productivity may best be realised through investment in labour-saving devices; capital will make such investments where labour is expensive; thus (as in nineteenth century America) scarcity of labour compelled investment in machinery, and living standards rose as a result. Conversely, productivity growth in the UK is notoriously lamentable in large part because of a glut of labour, often of poor quality; capital has little incentive to invest; living standards stagnate or decline and, accordingly, politics becomes embittered (the situation is now worse in the US as it lacks even the modest safety net on offer in the UK).

    Moreover, as the ‘low hanging fruit’ have been plucked transformative innovation with creditable Pareto optimality has become ever more difficult to attain and, therefore, more capital intensive. Given the decline in the birthrate of the native population there might have been a demographic dividend that would have allowed living standards to improve slowly – in other words (and to put it crudely), had the population of the UK stabilised then the economic cake would have remained broadly the same but shared amongst fewer people, which would have compensated for the absence of transformative productivity gains. Instead, the reverse has happened and we have imported a large number of people in a short period of time who are putting pressure on living standards; the cake remains the same, or smaller, and is being sliced ever more thinly.

    The cost of housing is of fundamental importance to this debate, though the linkage is seldom made. We have had a super-bubble in housing since c. 1969 (albeit with a couple of pauses). This is attributable to various factors, but chiefly the abolition in 1963 of Schedule A of the income tax and the liberalisation of credit after 1971 which sanctioned a one-way bet for those wishing to speculate on the value of their own homes. Untaxed capital gains have to be financed by successors in title plus the interest paid to lenders; it is a zero sum game: an owner occupier’s gain is a proportionate loss to a successor in title (or tenant). The gains have reached such proportions that the loans necessary to validate them cannot be redeemed without a large part of the population sacrificing its ability to save for retirement, but as an increasing proportion of the population are subject to defined contribution schemes it is ever more necessary that savings are increased significantly. Defined contribution pensions are liable to have disastrous outcomes in default of credible interest rates (>2% above RPI), but interest rates have been zero or less in real terms for most of the time since 2000, an unprecedented state of affairs in the history of interest rates. Interest rates have remained as low as they have for so long because to raise them would imperil the solvency of acutely geared owner occupiers and, therefore, the banks (for whom owner occupiers are approximately 90% of the loan book); also in a world of low rates and unrestrained capital flows to raise rates would also presumably have a devastating impact on industry.

    So, we have a generation approaching retirement who are going to outlive their pensions – and then what? Yet demand for housing must remain acute so that the Englishman’s home remains his castle [in the air]. Demand would have been more likely to decline along with the size of the population had immigration been restricted; therefore (it might be argued), high immigration has been of critical importance in keeping demand elevated so as to maintain bank profits by securing untaxed (and unearned) capital gains. The UK has been a vent to surplus labour elsewhere in the EU (and beyond) but perhaps by dint of immiserating a large part of the existing population, thus jeopardising their long-term futures and increasing inequality to an alarming extent. I fully expect to see pensioners dying in the streets in thirty or so years’ time because their DC pensions will not last for long and the state is decreasingly likely to have the means or inclination to assist them.

    There are other factors, of course, but this seems fundamental.

    I fear that we do need a more coherent theology of immigration, and one that does not compromise the credibility of church leaders (who often have access to secure accommodation) by appeals to vague and often incohate principles that mean little to those struggling to pay inflated rents or colossal mortgages. The Church of England has produced a number of distinguished economic thinkers (Tucker, Malthus, Jones, Whately, Cunningham, etc.; see James Kirby ‘Historians and the Church of England: Religion and Historical Scholarship, 1870-1920’ (OUP, 2016), at ch. 6 for a new discussion of this). I believe that it needs to revive this tradition as an adjunct to the study of pastoral theology.

    I am sorry if all this verbiage appears to be off-point, but your piece was excellent and has prompted me to think why it is that a substantial section of the population is anxious to quit the EU against the advice of most serious policymakers. Yes, much of it is about identity and, bluntly, race – but people will start to believe all sorts of invidious things if there is an increasing dissonance between the rhetoric of the rulers and the experience of the ruled.

  7. 3 things;- Euoropean institutions -like the Commission – are incapable of any self criticism. That’s my experience of the way the EU and other international organisations function – at least in Bosnia and Kosovo where the Soul of Europe has been working for 15 years.
    Then EU officials from the bottom to the top are often illiterate about religion – the official line is that religion is a matter of choice and is a private.matter.
    What needs to happen is the birth of an European liberation theology – not just transferring the ideas of the liberation theologians which were white and male,and incorporating islam and judaism. – this should appeal to those who are not intimidated by the hierarchies of the Catholic churches in Hungary ,Poland and elsewhere and will stand up for what Pope Francis says again and again are ‘our brothers and sisters’. Anyone reading this post is interested in this idea please contact us.

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