Reflections on the European Union referendum

By Steve Atherton, Justice & Peace fieldworker

Faith is not a private matter that can be kept in a box reserved for private piety. We must get involved in society. On 23 June we have the chance to vote in the In/Out referendum on membership of the European Union.

I imagine that most people already know how they will vote because most of us make decisions with our hearts rather than our heads. That is why the media and politicians tend to appeal to emotions rather than reason when they want to influence us.  

In my own case, it is hard to imagine voting for Brexit because I was a student at the time of the previous referendum and have been passionately pro-European ever since. In discussions on the EU, I think of the two World Wars and am thankful that disagreements can now be settled without recourse to slaughter; I think of the minimum wage and employment protection and other social justice measures that the EU introduced and the UK resisted; I think of the EU social fund that rebuilt large parts of the north-west of England. When I hear bitter complaints about Brussels inefficiency I believe it is a price worth paying while we pursue the reforms needed to remove bureaucratic red tape.

The first draft of the above paragraph actually included the line: "We should resist the temptation to take our ball back and go off to play in the darkness on the outskirts of Europe." I include it here to illustrate how easy it is to become emotional and use pejorative language in place of reasoned argument. However, when we apply the Cardinal Cardijn 'See-Judge-Act' framework to our decision-making, the principles of Catholic Social Teaching become the criteria we use at the 'Judge' stage of the process. It then becomes clear that the two pillars of Catholic Social Teaching – subsidiarity and solidarity – are integral to what the EU stands for.

The telling argument for Brexit would be if these principles of fraternal solidarity, subsidiarity, mutuality and social harmony were not borne out by what actually happened in member states. The example of what has happened to Greece shows that the EU solution has not prevented massive poverty among ordinary citizens. All is not right. Some respected Anglican commentators are calling Brexit a "second reformation" and have cast Brussels as the new Rome that has to be defied and resisted. This is not an argument that particularly appeals to Roman Catholics!

Now, having admitted my point of view, I have a duty to test my opinions by listening to those with whom I disagree. I want to put my cross on the ballot paper with an open mind. Finally, most of the public discussion about the referendum is framed in terms of economic benefits to the UK with very little said about philosophical or wider ethical issues. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, neither the geographic proximity of the UK to the rest of Europe will change nor the need to have shared responses to issues like trade, refugees and terrorism.

If staying in means that we still have to shape the EU along with others, then leaving means we will have to engage with partners who will be less inclined to give us what we want. The point is that it takes two to partner, and we simply do not know what can be guaranteed.
The Church of England and the Church of Scotland offer a very interesting website to debate European issues in the run-up to the EU referendum: