So with the starting fun now fired, how is the debate about the European Union taking shape? It's too early to tell, of course. But already it's becoming clear that battle lines are being drawn up along familiar fronts. Will Britain be better or worse off staying in the EU or leaving? Will the pound and the FTSE strengthen or weaken if we leave? Will Brexit encourage large and transnational organisations to decouple from the UK or not? Will our overseas trading relationships be helped or hindered? Will we be better or worse placed to face international crises? Will our country be more at risk from terror attacks in or out? Do the EU's governance shortcomings in its democratic transparency and accountability pose a fatal risk to the UK's sovereignty or not? And so on. Of the making of many arguments there is no end.
I am learning a lot by following news feeds and commentary about the referendum from all over the world and from many different perspectives. When it comes to the themes I've just listed, I am no expert. It all depends on whom you listen to, I suppose, or whom you listened to last, and of course whom you trust. I've said before that serious listening comes into things right now. It's important, when we don't know (or even when we think we do) that we pay attention and don't come to premature conclusions about arguments that have a long way to run.
However, the rules of engagement have been set in utilitarian, pragmatic terms that largely focus on the matters I've mentioned. These are all important but on their own they limit the discourse of the debate. The functional tone was set by the PM when he went into the summit. 'I'm going in to demand, and to get, what's best for Britain' - or words to that effect. Was I the only one who felt depressed, even dismayed, by that kind of talk? It sounded self-serving to me, lacking inspiration, falling short of the big idea. David Cameron famously said that he is not in love with Brussels. But what if we began at a different starting-point altogether, one that took us back to why the European Union was created in the first place, and why it might still be worth belonging to?
I've argued in my blogs that a Judaeo-Christian perspective on politics, public life and social ethics begins with the great commandments of the Torah, especially the second: to love your neighbour as yourself. This, to me, is the fundamental reason for believing in the EU as a family of peoples who, without sacrificing their own national identity and integrity, covenant together for the sake of one another's wellbeing and flourishing, what Catholic social theology calls 'the common good'. So we need to celebrate the signal achievements of the EU in safeguarding the peace of Europe since the War, bringing a degree of prosperity to its peoples undreamed of before, and beginning to get collective purchase on global threats that no nation can tackle on its own, such as terrorism and climate change. Whatever its failures to live up to its high ideals (and they are many), the vision, the purpose and the achievements still matter. And not to be talking up a noble ideal seems to me to lack real belief in the European project, the conviction that it could still be a force for immense good in the world and that Britain should be taking a leading role at the very heart of it.
You may say: this is the passion of the Europhile preacher speaking to emotions and soul rather than the hard-headed realist addressing the mind. Well, I am a preacher by trade and believe in the power of good rhetoric to change both minds and hearts. Heart speaks to heart and my heart is unequivocally in this. And believe me, it's precisely this 'heart-work' that we need to do: for if we believe that the EU matters to an entire continent and indeed to the world, then it should certainly matter to us as one of its member states and to each of us as UK citizens. But a lot of what I've read and heard from our leaders seems to be along the lines of: the best that can be said for the EU is that because our membership is the status quo, and because we are persuaded that we'll be no worse off by leaving it, we may as well stay and make the best of it we can. Some of the campaigning seems to be striking that rather grudging note as if to say, we'd really rather not be bothered with all this but since we are where we are, let's try to sound convincing.
When it comes to passion, Brexit Beleavers may well be more prepared to own up to it than we who are EU-Believers. After all, it's so un-British to talk up the EU - isn't it? (Though it's also true that the spirit in the pro-EU organisations out on the streets is becoming energised and excited by the campaign, and that's how it should be. If we aren't afraid of speaking to the heart, there's a chance that people in the UK could become as engaged in the referendum debate as the Scots were over the independence vote in 2014. Indeed the two issues are not so very different as I'll try to argue in a future blog.)
So I want to urge us as Christians for the EU to speak up as those who are proud to belong to a body with such an enlightened view of how human beings can grow together. Because as Ben Ryan has said in his recent Theos report A Soul For The Union, the challenge is far bigger than securing assent to some abstract organisational idea called the EU. We need to become Europeans, and persuade others across our continent and in the UK to think of themselves as having that sense of both identity and belonging. It's similar to the difference between assenting to Christianity and being Christians, or as we might say, 'believing that' as distinct from 'believing in'. If Latin cuts more ice than English, it's fiducia that we need, not just fides.
That's my pitch: that it's belief in that we badly need to foster in this campaign. Not naïvely, not uncritically, not without asking the hard questions of governance structures and processes that everyone acknowledges need reforming and renewing. (If only the PM had focused on those things at the summit!) But let's reawaken the vision of the EU's founding fathers and mothers. Let's rekindle their first fine (though not careless) rapture. And yes, let's be passionate about what we believe - in politics as much as religious faith, and urge our leaders to be as excited as we are by our future in the EU with all the possibilities that lie open before us.
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