Last week, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States, or Foreign Minister if you prefer, offered the apparently official line that the Holy See would prefer Britain to vote to remain in the European Union. This position was gently phrased, with deference to the right of the voters to decide, and set within the wider context of a discussion of the refugee crisis which remains the single greatest issues facing the Union. Brexit was described as “not something that would make a stronger Europe” and the problem of mass refugee migration to Europe as “one of the important things that the EU has got to work together [on]”.
I do not doubt Archbishop Gallagher’s sincerity or concern for the refugee crisis. And the Church, as a sovereign international entity, has always been in favour, in theory, of international bodies and fora for cooperation between nations.
Yet the Archbishop’s comments betray a subtle conflation at the heart of the referendum debate in this country: the UK leaving would certainly not make for a stronger European Union, but that is not the same thing as Europe. The fortunes of the collection of identities, languages, cultures and peoples which makes up Europe are certainly bound up with the EU project, but are their interests really mutually served?
While it is, itself, a disputed point, let us take for granted that the EU would be better off with Britain in it. This begs, or should beg, the question, from the Holy See’s point of view: is Europe better off with or without the EU?
Taking the refugee crisis as a case in point: Archbishop Gallagher says, and he is right, that no one country is doing enough to deal with the situation. But consideration of the facts does not suggest that closer EU cooperation and integration is the answer, indeed, a compelling logical argument can be advanced in the other direction. Germany’s largesse to refugees has placed great strain on the Schengen Agreement and resulted in Chancellor Merkel coming under enormous pressure to fall in line with the other member states. As the cry goes round that the refugees are a European crisis that requires a European (meaning EU) solution, almost nothing is ever substantially resolved at a continental level. The EU is, famously, unable to agree upon the acceptable curvature of bananas – is it really credible that the greatest humanitarian disaster of the twenty-first century is going to see a swift and decisive response?
Rather than fostering a strong, united reaction amongst its members, so far the European Union has treated the refugee crisis as an opportunity for existential navel-gazing, and actively discouraged individual member states from unilateral action. Increasingly, EU leaders have gone so far in their commitment to theory over reality that they have said that even the threat of terrorism can’t be allowed to imperil the Schengen Agreement.
The remoteness of the EU from the problems it seeks to address, and from the consequences of the decisions it takes and the people they affect, is symptomatic of a wider technocratic trend in the democracies of the West, and against which there is an increasing backlash.
In Italy last week, hundreds of thousands of people, Catholics and others, took to the streets of Rome to protest the proposed law which would recognise same-sex marriage and award gay couples full adoption rights. They did so, as the wider media has consistently pointed out, without the vocal encouragement of either Pope Francis or the hierarchy of the Italian Church, and in the teeth of the centre-left political consensus.
Meanwhile, closer to home, Peter Tatchell, of all people, said the application of gay-rights legislation in the UK had gone “too far”, as far-right and far-left groups were violently clashing along the English coast.
Across the Channel, France remains in an official state of national emergency and Spain recently gave a sizeable parliamentary voice to the anti-austerity party Podemos, effectively the Stop the War Coalition with a Castilian lisp. Greece is still a basket case, though we have grown so used to it that it has ceased to make the news.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the well charted rise of Donald Trump as a “serious” political character is a direct, if incoherent, expression of frustration by American voters at being offered the choice between a Clinton, a Bush, and the usual cast of sideshow candidates, again and again and again.
It is against this backdrop of international populist uproar that we will likely have a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU and David Cameron’s deus ex machina production of a “deal” with Donald Tusk, of whom most of the people in this country have never heard, plays right into the spreading perception of a stitch-up. It is hardly surprising that a poll today gave those intending to vote to leave the EU a 9% lead, despite the self immolation of the Out Campaign.
Voting to leave the EU is a perfectly legitimate choice for everyone in this country to make, if they wish, and, despite impressions to the contrary, there is no Catholic party line on the issue. It is entirely possible that Britain, and indeed Europe, would function better if it recovered a little more autonomy and immediacy in its decision making. What the Church can and should champion, in the face of political tremors across the West, is the universal moral inheritance which Christianity has bequeathed. It was in deference to the importance of this common cultural inheritance that Joseph Ratzinger took the name Benedict upon his election. It is faith in these common values, not in supranational bureaucracies, which provides the strongest hope for an answer, or a chorus of answers, to the refugee crisis.
There is a great, properly Catholic, case to be made for an international agenda which emphasises the decentralisation of structures and the universality of values. It is the temptation of the reverse, both within and without the Church, which has produced much of the unrest we are seeing.