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EU referendum: the Catholic case for sitting on the fence


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There is a strong Catholic attachment to the European Union. This is especially so in countries where the faith seems to be waning rapidly, such as Germany and Austria.

Such attachment is not surprising.

The EU has strong Christian – indeed, Catholic – roots. There was a real optimism when it was founded that it could help to cement Christian democracy as well as keep the peace and foster economic cooperation. And not long after what is now called the EU was formed, Pope John XXIII issued Pacem in Terris, which called for international political institutions that would help promote the dignity of the human person and the global common good – a call that has been echoed on many occasions.

However, neither the Catechism of the Catholic Church nor the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church specifically mention the European Union and so, as Catholics, we must avoid the reductionist fallacy that runs: “The Church’s teaching supports international political institutions; the EU is an international political institution; therefore the faithful must support the EU.”

The question for Catholics has to be: does the EU still promote human dignity and the common good? Political institutions are human constructions. They do not exist for their own sake and they do not exist forever. If they do not serve the purpose for which they are designed, we have every right to change them.

Without question, there are some ways in which the EU has promoted the common good – often by restraining nation states. Though many in Britain are nervous about migration, it has brought many benefits – not least to migrants themselves. On an everyday level, free movement is especially helpful to continental countries. And the “four freedoms” – movement of goods, services, capital and people – has helped cross-border economic and social cooperation between professions, universities and commercial organisations when, in the past, nation states might well have put up barriers.

But there are also negatives on the balance sheet. Pacem in Terris envisaged international institutions assisting nation states in ensuring that the states themselves could protect human dignity: in other words, the principle of subsidiarity, properly defined, was paramount. In the EU, the principle of subsidiarity is so perversely defined that it promotes, rather than provides a check on, the centralisation of power within the European institutions. Indeed, in one of the EU’s documents it is suggested that the principle of subsidiarity implies that action should only be taken at the local level where it proves to be necessary. It is little wonder that EU institutions just accrue more power to themselves.

And there have been concerted efforts to use the EU institutions to promote abortion as a human right – completely inverting any proper understanding of human rights. Not only that, economic outcomes in the EU are terrible: youth unemployment is nearly 25 per cent in the eurozone. This is a scar on Europe.

In this context, I believe that Catholics are entitled to judge whether the EU serves a useful purpose and whether meaningful reform is possible. Has the EU become so detached from its Christian roots that it is fatally adrift when it comes to judging matters to do with the protection of human life? Does it show an indifference to the young that undermines the common good and solidarity? Have its institutions become self-serving? Will a Britain outside the EU actually become more engaged with the rest of the world and remove those tariff barriers that are erected against the products of poor countries?

We should, though, be careful before throwing the baby out with the bathwater and should certainly not vote according to narrow personal or national interest. The EU is far from perfect, but then there is no perfection to be found in human institutions.

A case can be made that the EU has helped to promote liberty, democracy, economic freedom, stability and human rights in a number of countries, particularly in central and eastern Europe. Certainly, such countries do not have an ideal political environment, but it is almost certainly better than it would have been without the EU – and well-intentioned people in former communist countries want Britain to stay because they believe that the UK is a force for good in the EU.

If we remain in the EU, we must try to transform the institution for the better. And if we leave, we must promote an outward-looking and not an insular Britain. I have yet to make up my own mind on the matter. There is a strong Catholic case for sitting on the fence. However, abstaining is not really an option. A judgment has to be made about whether, on balance, the EU contributes to the promotion of human dignity and the common good – when compared with the realistic alternatives.

Academic and Research Director, IEA

Philip Booth is Senior Academic Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is also Director of the Vinson Centre and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham and Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. He also holds the position of (interim) Director of Catholic Mission at St. Mary’s having previously been Director of Research and Public Engagement and Dean of the Faculty of Education, Humanities and Social Sciences. From 2002-2016, Philip was Academic and Research Director (previously, Editorial and Programme Director) at the IEA. From 2002-2015 he was Professor of Insurance and Risk Management at Cass Business School. He is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Federal Studies at the University of Kent and Adjunct Professor in the School of Law, University of Notre Dame, Australia. Previously, Philip Booth worked for the Bank of England as an adviser on financial stability issues and he was also Associate Dean of Cass Business School and held various other academic positions at City University. He has written widely, including a number of books, on investment, finance, social insurance and pensions as well as on the relationship between Catholic social teaching and economics. He is Deputy Editor of Economic Affairs. Philip is a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries and an honorary member of the Society of Actuaries of Poland. He has previously worked in the investment department of Axa Equity and Law and was been involved in a number of projects to help develop actuarial professions and actuarial, finance and investment professional teaching programmes in Central and Eastern Europe. Philip has a BA in Economics from the University of Durham and a PhD from City University.


1 thought on “EU referendum: the Catholic case for sitting on the fence”

  1. Posted 23/06/2016 at 16:16 | Permalink

    Given that we haven’t had referendums very often (and it’s not obvious that any British government would be keen to have another any time soon), it seems sensible to cast one’s vote on the basis, not of what conditions seem to be today, but what one expects them to be in, say, fifteen years time. This involves guessing what the European Union’s intentions will be in future (for example, will the EU be prepared to modify its ‘principle’ of freedom of movement?) as well as trying to judge how competently it will manage its affairs (where, in my opinion, so far the record has not been very satisfactory). It also involves guessing what conditions would be like with an ‘independent’ United Kingdom (or, perhaps, England or some other combination of ‘home nations’). On this latter question I am less confident than I was when casting a vote to Leave in the 1975 referendum. Like Hayek, over the course of a fairly long life my opinion of politicians has steadily gone down. One’s answer, of course, also depends on one’s criteria. I haven’t found the concentration in the recent campaign on economic and trade aspects and on immigration very helpful. I simply don’t attach much weight to economists’ guesses about what might happen fifteen years into the future, nor do I think either side in the campaign has been very credible on immigration. So personally I put weight on sovereignty, democracy, independence etc. which means I am hardly likely to vote to stay in the EU. It is worth reflecting that we are only having a referendum because politicians, under our system of parliamentary democracy, have failed properly to represent their constituents. Whether the final decision is to Remain or the Leave (or, as I rather expect, somewhere in between), let’s hope they can do a better job in this respect in future.

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