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The EU and ethics

26 April 2016

Richard Hay - an ex-senior official at the European Commission and retired incumbent of Addlestone with permission to officiate in the diocese

Richard Hay

On June 2​3, the British electorate will vote in a referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union. The referendum debate is being largely focussed around two inter-related issues: independence and the UK’s self-interest. Both raise moral issues.

The insistence on ‘independence’ is often justified by very inaccurate claims ("The EU is undemocratic." – but all decisions are taken by elected politicians; "We lose control of our borders." – quite untrue for non-EU movements, partly true for EU ones; "Our laws are made in Brussels" – only 2% of major legislation mentions the EU; "UK courts are subject to EU courts" – yes, but only in a tiny number of cases and after going through UK courts…, etc*). But there is also a moral issue. Is it right to make independence a guiding principle?


"But there is also a moral issue. Is it right to make independence a guiding principle?"


The wish to be independent and self-sufficient is a deeply felt human instinct. But it is flawed as an aim, and unrealisable in practice. The whole of nature from the origin of the universe to its smallest detail shows us that life and its flourishing is not possible without interdependence, sometimes of a most complex kind. Human life also evidently depends on relationships. The reality is that we cannot live apart from others, that we achieve more fulfilment through committed relationships with others than we do on our own, and that this is also of wider benefit. Of course this is not an argument for favouring a particular form of relationship with others. Responsibility is part of freedom; it should only be assumed at a higher collective level when it can be shown to be needed at that level (the principle of subsidiarity). But to make independence itself a guiding principle does not make sense; to seek to do so shows a greater concern about the means of governance than about its ends.

Because we are inevitably in relationship with others self-interest cannot be separated from mutual dependence. What is best for ourselves is also that which takes account of the interests of the others with whom we are inevitably linked by challenges that need a collective response. Aims which place our interest alongside that of others feed into relationships with others that are life-enhancing not only for ourselves but also for others.

In a speech last year to the European Parliament, Pope Francis drew attention to the twin dangers of the unfettered freedom of the individual and the collective control that seeks to repress the individual in the face of the collective. The key lies in balanced relationships.

We therefore need to look not at independence and self-interest as principles, but at the nature of the balance which is offered by the EU.

Europe’s moral purpose
The EU did not begin from economic motives or from the search for prosperity alone. Nor has this become its guiding principle. What is now the EU began with the 1951 Treaty of Paris to bring together oversight of the coal and steel industries of the European nations that had so recently been at war, to establish the mutual confidence that none of them could secretly prepare for a third war. The leaders at the time were motivated by Christian principles. The next major imperative to which the EU has responded was to offer an attractive alternative to the dictatorships of Greece, Spain and Portugal and to the authoritarian communist regimes of eastern Europe. As a result, the EU has grown to 28 countries. This expansion was not motivated by economic or financial grounds, but by the wish to sustain democracy, individual freedom and the rule of law.
The success of building peace and the passage of years reduced the fear of major war, while free trade was seen to be a successful economic model. So the Treaty of Rome in 1958 made it possible to extend the benefits of cooperation to other sectors of the economy, looking to what would become the objective of a single market in goods and services.


"The EU did not begin from economic motives or from the search for prosperity alone. Nor has this become its guiding principle."


But this development has sought to balance economic success with other needs in a world of growing globalisation. Early on, measures were adopted for the vulnerable sectors of agriculture and fisheries. More generally, a common framework has dealt with other issues e.g. employees’ rights, fair competition, environmental issues and the protection of consumers. This evolution has been accompanied by policies to increase the welfare of the poorer regions and social groups of Europe, through the largest voluntary transfer of wealth in history across national boundaries from richer to poorer regions.

From the beginning, there has also been an awareness of developing countries’ needs, initially through the former colonies of the member states, later more generally based on the EU’s economic strength. Much of the aid given by member states is channelled through the EU to increase its effectiveness, and the EU collectively is the largest source of development aid in the world.

The moral purpose remains valid
The moral purpose on which the EU was founded remains valid today. Nationalist feelings are growing in some places, and ideas of democracy are being rewritten. The wars in the Balkans, and the more recent seizure of the Crimea, remind us not only in eastern Europe but also the west that peace is precarious, that the possibility of economic and political – if not yet military – conflict is real. We now also face additional pressures because of population movement and security. While some seem to seek to turn their backs to the pressures of migration, the reality is that the issue will continue whether we are in or out of the EU, and will raise the same human issues. We live in a world of global business, in which the possibilities for any one country to establish effective rules are severely limited. There is an urgent need to tackle income disparity and especially youth unemployment. And there is the need to tackle climate change. To be effective, action in each and all of these challenges has to go beyond the borders of any one country. The EU has been, and needs to continue to be much more than an economic system for producing prosperity.


"The UK as a member of the EU has a chance to share in shaping the EU’s ongoing response, through which it will continue to evolve."


The UK as a member of the EU has a chance to share in shaping the EU’s ongoing response, through which it will continue to evolve. Political pressures in other countries are sometimes similar to those in the UK. We would not lack those with similar views, if we are prepared to discuss openly and of course to recognise that outcomes may not be exactly what we want. If the UK leaves we won’t have this chance. And our leaving will weaken the EU and reduce its ability to meet these challenges which affect the lives of many.

Each member of the EU of 28 benefits from the coming together of different countries, cultures and languages. Diversity encourages understanding, compassion and innovation. It also fits the reality of the world as it has become through much easier travel, and vastly more electronic communication of every kind. EU membership is not essential to share this cultural richness, but it greatly helps the necessary freedom of contact. Some fear ‘federalism’; there isn’t the slightest chance of a ‘United States of Europe’ – but it is interesting that for a German federalism is not a threat to much-treasured regional difference but quite the contrary its protection and condition for flourishing.

Christian principles
Christians among us pray regularly for God’s Kingdom to come. We seek to follow Jesus’ teaching, which He illustrated by stories that challenge self-interest and ‘fair return’ (e.g. the workers in the vineyard; the good Samaritan; the sheep and the goats), and which promote attention to the needs of the poor and the marginal. Our aim – which we follow with different understandings – is to seek values expressed in public policy and private life that reach out to encompass all. In seeking such results, Christians thankfully acknowledge that the only power in God’s Kingdom is love. We are called to love God and our neighbour.


"Christians among us pray regularly for God’s Kingdom to come. We seek to follow Jesus’ teaching, which He illustrated by stories that challenge self-interest and ‘fair return’ "


To me, being in the EU seems a more substantial expression of love for our neighbour than leaving ‘to do our own thing’. It recognises our interdependence. It provides suitable scope for generating well-being, but in a framework which also includes concern for the well-being of others. It gives us a practical way of expressing solidarity with and compassion for many needy people. It is therefore closer than exit to the values of God’s Kingdom.

Recommended further reading: Reimagining Europe, the Church of England's space for Christian reflection and debate on Britain’s future relationship with Europe ahead of the forthcoming referendum.

*This blog is a condensed version of a briefing paper written by Richard, which can be read here

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1 comment

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  1. Trevor Lewis | Apr 26, 2016
    A well argued case by a man who's life before ministry was with the foreign office.

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