Sunday, 12 May 2013

The EU referendum: what should the question be?

One of my sharpest memories of fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is waking up the following day and lying in bed a few moments thinking. What I thought was .... that, almost literally in a 24 hour period, the situation of the world (though I should perhaps have thought Europe in particular) had changed. I have a particular memory of a young girl that night, who had just crossed over into West Berlin for the first time, being asked by a radio reporter whether or not she would go back to the East. She couldn't answer one way or the other, being so completely overwhelmed by the moment. My sensitivity to Berlin comes from the fact that it is the city where my parents first met, when both were serving in the British Army in the decade or so after World War II.

This week, in British politics, the intervention of Lord Lawson calling for Britain to leave the European Union has created a comparable sea change in our perception of the relationship of Britain with the rest of Europe. Lord Lamont has also intervened, arguing that our relationship with Europe should be one that is economic in nature rather than political. He differed from Lord Lawson in arguing for at least an attempted renegotiation of the relationship into a free trade agreement. The possibility has emerged of a vote this coming week on an amendment that regrets that there were no plans for a referendum on the EU built in to the Queen's Speech. There is a hefty element of internal Conservative Party politics in all of this - the Tory Eurosceptics do not trust David Cameron's qualified promise of a referendum, and detect that he really wants Britain to remain in the EU but has to offer something that will gain back support from the United Kingdom Independence Party. Should a vote occur this week, Government ministers are being "guided" to abstain, while other Conservative MPs are likely to have a free vote (or, as the BBC are reporting it: "Other MPs, including ministers' parliamentary aides, will be free to vote with their consciences.")

The events just described have created a sense of a real possibility of British withdrawal from the European Union that did not exist, say, two weeks ago. My own suspicion is that, by and large, the ordinary British citizen would prefer to stay in the EU rather than leave - but that perception has been significantly altered this week. The Telegraph coverage today suggests a growing revolt against David Cameron's approach and in favour of a stronger move towards a referendum that might lead to British withdrawal.

1. I think we should first of all be wary of the way in which interventions from Tory grandees of the past have played in the media, catching degree of publicity out of all proportion to the significance of the respective speakers in the present day political arena. In the light of point 2, I would suggest that there has been a certain amount of manipulation in terms of the media coverage, and we should be aware of that manipulation in our evaluation.

2. If I have understood the interventions of Lord Lawson and Lord Lamont correctly, they have framed the question of Britain's EU membership solely in terms of its economic benefit (or opposite) to Britain. And this, more than anything else in my view, represents a manipulation of the debate.

3. And, in the light of point 2, to describe an unwhipped vote on the matter as "allowing MPs to vote according to their consciences" is misleading. To vote simply on the basis of a judgement of economic benefit for Britain only seems to me instead to be a complete abdication of conscience in favour of blatant self-interest.

So what is the real question?

4. From the point of view of Catholic social teaching, the question of EU membership is one in the area of prudential judgement rather than one in the area of absolute right and wrong. It involves a prudential judgement, not about what is in our own self-interest, but a prudential judgement about what constitutes the "common good". As Gaudium et Spes n.26 teaches (though I have slightly adapted the translation from that on the Vatican website):
Every day human interdependence grows more tightly drawn and spreads by degrees over the whole world. As a result the common good, that is, the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members full and ready access to their own fulfilment, today takes on an increasingly universal complexion and consequently involves rights and duties with respect to the whole human race. Every social group must take account of the needs and legitimate aspirations of other groups, and even of the general welfare of the entire human family.
It is worth reading something of the original inspiration for what subsequently became the European Union during the years immediately following World War II to gain some idea of what the notion of the "common good" means for the current debate. Try the Schuman Declaration and this history of the development of the European Union. [Aside: Robert Schuman's hiding place from the Germans during part of World War II was the shrine at La Salette ...] One can readily see the solidarity among European nations encouraged by the European Union as reflecting this teaching.

The history of the European Union clearly indicates that to reduce the present debate to an exclusively economic level is to misunderstand the nature of the entire project of the European Union. The European Union, in its most fundamental inspiration, sees matters of economics as being at the service of a wider solidarity between the peoples of Europe. Only a generation that is so far separated from the events of 1939-1945, and indeed from the events of 1945-1989, by their own blinkered self-interest and/or immersion in decadent materialism can give the contributions of Lord Lawson and Lord Lamont (at least as they have been reported in the media in recent days) any credence.

[I have not seen it raised in the debate in recent days, but the question of economic migration as a consequence of the provisions for freedom of  movement within the EU sits within this discussion of the "common good". There is a prudential judgement to be made about appropriate levels of such migration, but, again, that judgement, if it is to be ethically just, cannot be reduced just to its economic aspects. There is an element of solidarity with the person who is less well off -even at a cost to a host country - that represents a part of the wider sense of the "common good" referred to by Gaudium et Spes.]

6. If a free vote is also to be a vote "according to their conscience" with regard to EU membership, MPs should, in deciding how they are going to vote and in discussing that with their political colleagues, the media and their constituents, give due regard to the whole substance of what constitutes the "common good", and that not just for the people of Britain but for all the peoples of Europe. MPs might well come to different prudential judgements, and the economic arguments will form a part of that. But concentrating only on the economic arguments will not constitute a vote "according to conscience" in any real sense.

7. And, finally. The question on the ballot paper of any referendum that we might or might not eventually get is likely to be expressed in the stark terms of "in" or "out". But the real question on the ballot paper is one with regard to the "common good". But will the typical voter actually answer that question?


P Stanfield said...

As usual in such debates, the real question is avoided by pretty much all involved. Catholic social teaching also puts import on the concept of subsidiarity. That is something that is disappearing rapidly in the EU. Competence on the majority of decisions is now vested in large EU institutions and steered mainly by vested interests. The ordinary voter may vote, but those for whom he votes have no power now. Westminster does what Brussels tells it, largely; Councils mainly do what Westminster tell them. My local MP is a great chap, but most of what he is involved in is what you would expect a county councillor to do. County councillors merely rubber stamp their officers decisions. Most of the laws and regulations passed in Parliament are rubber stamping of EU regulation. There is no real difference in what the political parties do, as opposed to what they claim they would do. So, prudential judgement requires one to consider also that assimilation into a superstate has removed much local power - subsidiarity - to the detriment of most of the populations, and in a way that increases resentment against those migrants that do arrive. The voters know this, hence the growing popularity of 'other' parties. The population is not as green as it's cabbage looking.

Joe said...

Thank you for your comment. Mischievous response first: I believe it was Winston Churchill who referred to the need for a "kind of United States of Europe" - my emphasis on the kind, as I do not think Churchill's remark should be cited to support a greater degree of federation in Europe.
Less mischieviously: the notion of subsidiarity certainly belongs as part of the judgements of the common good. Should not the question be about which powers are appropriately exercised in a pan-European way and which are not, rather than just suggesting that none should be so exercised? And what of the notion of "margin of appreciation" expressed in EU legal judgements?