An archbishop has become the first senior Church leader in the UK to show public sympathy for the Brexit campaign.
European Union ambitions to turn the bloc into the super-state were wrong, said Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark.
The quest for cohesion between European member states could not come at the price of their legitimate sovereignty, he said.
The archbishop said it was “hard to swallow” the loss of British sovereignty to the EU project of erecting a European “United States”.
He also denounced the single currency as a failure which hurt poor countries, adding that he was glad Britain had not signed up to it.
Archbishop Smith, the vice president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, also criticised the Remain campaign for attempting to “scare” the electorate into voting to stay in the EU when they go to the polls on June 23.
He dismissed as “ludicrous” the bleak economic forecasts predicted by George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the event of a Brexit win.
“When we joined the European Union many decades ago, the chief arguments were about trade, that we would be better off and it would help the economy,” said Archbishop Smith.
“The problem is that the EU has become extremely bureaucratic,” he told Vatican Radio. “With this real fundamental desire to become more integrated, like a European (United) States – that, many of us find hard to swallow.
“I don’t think that is the right thing to do,” he said,
“The euro hasn’t worked particularly with the poorer countries in Europe – Greece, Portugal, Spain to an extent. It is not working with the euro and all of us are glad that we didn’t go into the euro because of the different economies on the continent of Europe.”
“I am very sceptical of the arguments the Chancellor makes. When he does a budget each year very often by the end of the year his forecasts are all over the place.
“When you look at the budgets even after 12 months very often the Chancellor is wrong because you can’t pin the economy down like that because it is so involved with the world economy which goes up and down.”
He added: “Most people are completely puzzled. They don’t know what the real arguments are and then they hear these scare stories like the Chancellor saying in 14 years’ time we will £4,000 plus less (worse off).
“With great respect to the Chancellor of the Exchequer I think it is ludicrous. He doesn’t know, and we don’t know.
“This is not the way to argue. It is on the broad issues – on solidarity of Europe, on the issues now of the Middle East and the migrant crisis, which is causing terrible problems, but particularly to the poorer countries of Europe, Greece for example.
“Turkey is neither in nor out at the moment. There is an awful lot of work to be done on the political side toward making the EU more cohesive without it over-taking the legitimate sovereignty of the particular countries.”
Archbishop Smith said that “The real difficulty is that there has been no clarity on either side of the argument” and that “there hasn’t been much argument at all.”
“There has been a lot of emotional speculation and so on,” he said.
“With respect to them all they treat each other like naughty teenagers – more personal abuse than giving us substantive arguments on both sides.”
It was a “great shame” that politicians were not giving the public the facts about Britain’s position in Europe, Archbishop Smith added.
“There ought to be a proper debate in the House of Lords and in Parliament – not to make a decision but to air and give reasonable arguments on both sides because most of what we hear is speculation.”
He said: “It is scaring people into following a particular line, whether in or out. It is not a good way of having a rational thought-out view about what is the best thing for the future for us and for Europe.”
It is the policy of the Catholic bishops never to direct the faithful how to vote in a General Election or a referendum.
Instead, they choose to highlight issues of concern which they wish voters to consider when casting their votes.
Last month, they issued a joint statement in which they urged Catholics to become fully informed of the arguments for and against EU membership ahead of the referendum, telling them that the outcome of the vote will have consequences for the future “not only of the UK but for Europe and for the world”.
The comments of Archbishop Smith, the chairman of the Bishops’ Department Christian Responsibility and Citizenship, reveal the divisions among the Catholic bishops over the referendum, however.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster and the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, strongly indicated his support for the Remain camp when he told journalists that Britain would face “complex problems” if voters chose to leave the EU.
His predecessor, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, went further earlier this month when he forcefully backed Remain in an article in the Spectator.
Archbishop Smith said he was undecided about which way to vote but noted that one possible consequence of a Brexit victory could be disintegration of the EU as other countries followed Britain’s example and left the bloc.
He said: “In other countries in the EU a lot of people are getting very nervous about the way the EU is working. If we pull out there could be the danger of a chain reaction.”