LONDON — The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, commonly referred to as “Brexit,” is not a religious issue, let alone a Catholic one.
That said, what do Britain’s Catholic politicians make of the 2016 referendum decision, which has now descended into what might be viewed as a constitutional crisis for the U.K.?
During the U.K.’s 2015 general election, David Cameron, the then-Conservative Party leader, pledged to hold a referendum on Britain’s continued membership in the European Union (EU) if the Conservatives were elected as the governing party.
At the time, the issue of EU membership was not the most-pressing issue for the country. It was, however, proving an issue for the center-right Conservative Party that was at that time divided within its own ranks by that subject. At the same time, the Conservatives were wary of the electoral threat from the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which was then gaining ground in the opinion polls.
As it turned out, Cameron’s party won the 2015 election and went on to form a government. Prime Minister Cameron agreed to hold the referendum on EU membership in June 2016. Everyone expected that the “Remain” (pro-EU) side, would win — and handsomely. The polls said as much.
As it turned out, the “Leave” (Brexit) side narrowly won, with 51.9% of the vote. And, with that, Cameron resigned as prime minister.
Thereafter, with Theresa May installed as prime minister, the U.K. was plunged into a political and then a constitutional crisis that appears to have, as yet, no end in sight, even though the proposed date for exiting the EU is only weeks away — March 29, at 11pm London time.
The subject of Brexit has divided the leaders and members of the two main political parties in the U.K. Many MPs and party members from both parties, Conservative and Labour, are firmly for “Remain,” while others in both parties are equally fixed in their desire to leave. Those in the latter camp are sometimes termed “Brexiteers.”
The centrist Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru (Welsh nationalists) and the Scottish National Party are all wholly pro-“Remain,” while on the political right both UKIP and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party are determinedly pro-Brexit.
On the subject of Brexit, at least as evidenced in the actual vote in June 2016, the British electorate remains split more or less evenly. The four constituent parts that go to make up the United Kingdom in the 2016 referendum were equally divided.
While England and Wales voted to “Leave,” Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to “Remain.” Furthermore, there were voting variations within England. London voted solidly for “Remain,” as did many metropolitan areas, while other more rural or economically depressed post-industrial English areas voted “Leave.”
Simply put, many on the “Remain” side see Brexit as having an overall negative effect.
Charles Tannock, a Catholic and a British Conservative member of the European Parliament (MEP), summed up what many “Remainers” think when he told the Register, “Brexit means a poorer, more isolated U.K., with its peoples deprived of the freedom to live, work, study and retire anywhere across 30 countries, and [it] has caused a deeply divided country and political class.”
“It means potentially endless inconveniences, from non-recognition of U.K. driving licenses, pet passports to EHIC health travel cover,” he said. “It puts U.K. citizens at more risk from crime and terrorism, as the EU cooperation on both internal security and external security and defense is negatively impacted.”
Tannock added, “It means being a rule-taker for much of U.K.’s economy but no longer being in a position to influence matters in everything from medical licenses, to environmental, labor and financial regulation. … It means damage to U.K.’s NHS, as EU doctors and nurses stop coming as they lose their secure rights to practice in U.K.”
Fearing the unraveling of the current British constitutional arrangement, Tannock went on to add, “So far I have not identified one positive thing about Brexit. It could mean the potential breakup of the U.K., with an independent Scotland and a reunited Ireland.”
Tannock sees Brexit as “a selfish and destructive act by the U.K. against the EU.” There are still many recriminations on both sides about the claims that were made by both campaigns during the referendum debate.
Tannock said he feels that that debate preceding the referendum vote was an unhealthy one and sees no appetite for anything similar in any other EU nation.
He said, “Fortunately, no other EU 27 country is tempted to follow the U.K., having witnessed the disaster of Brexit and realized that so many lies and false promises were made by Brexiteers to deceive the U.K. electorate during the referendum campaign.”
Margot Parker is also a Catholic MEP, but she is a member of the pro-Brexit UKIP. She takes the opposite view to her fellow Catholic MEP Tannock.
“On June 23, 2016, 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU,” Parker told the Register. “It was an extraordinary result, despite the elites in politics throwing everything they could to win the electorate over into voting to remain in the EU.”
Parker sees the vote not as an ending, but as a beginning.
“The ramifications and mindset of the decision by the British people must be pragmatic and a move forward in an optimistic way to fulfill the ability to trade with the rest of the world and to bring back full control of our laws, fishing, immigration, etc., to a sovereign U.K.,” she said.
Parker, who said she is an optimist, rejects the negative consequences predicted by Tannock.
“As the fifth-largest world economy, Brexit will be positive, with a government that is innovative in creating a dynamic U.K., which will be beneficial to all our citizens.”
Parker sees Brexit as a move to greater democracy for U.K. citizens and as “a long-overdue decision by the British people, who saw [entering the European Economic Community in 1973 as] a trade alliance led by a Tory government initially, which then morphed into a political project with consecutive U.K. governments — both Labour and Conservative — signing ever more powers via treaties to the EU without ever asking or explaining to the British voters and taxpayers exactly what they were signing up to.”
“There was no democratic decision,” she said. “Now the British people have chosen democracy.”
What light, if any, does Catholic social teaching shed on this debate around national sovereignty, supranational structures and the idea of subsidiarity?
Tannock does see a “Catholic angle” to Brexit, but it is not a good one. Brexit, he thinks, reflects some of the stands of the 16th-century English Reformation.
“To me, there is a Catholic angle, as this desire to re-establish an English rather than British nationalist and populist powerful narrative, which they’ve masked as ‘British exceptionalism,’ is seen by some Brexiteers as a second Reformation rejecting Catholicism, which traditionally bonded England to Europe,” he said. “Loyalty to the pope in England as a ‘foreign prince’ will always be seen as suspicious by hardline English nationalists.”
Tannock went on to explain some of the other elements at work in Brexit through this historic lens.
“This partly explains the hostility felt by ‘Brextremists’ toward Ireland, which stayed loyal to the EU, and who, deep down, cannot accept and regret Ireland’s independence and sovereignty and hope Ireland can somehow be reabsorbed by the U.K. or, more precisely, by England.”
The debate on Brexit in the British Parliament has, by necessity, had to move on from the more general “Remain” and “Leave” positions to more specific ones focused on what “type” of Brexit should take place. As it stands, Prime Minister May has brought back a Brexit deal from Brussels, agreed to by the 27 EU member countries, which sets out the terms by which the U.K. could exit the EU. But, by an overwhelming majority, the members of Parliament have rejected this negotiated deal.
Three Current Options
Presently, there are three Brexit positions: “Remain” in the EU, “Leave” the EU without a deal, or “Leave” on the terms of May’s deal.
Prominent Catholic MP and privy counsellor, Sir Edward Leigh supports the last option. He told the Register, “Brexit for us means resuming what we have always viewed as our normal place among the nations of the world.”
“The EU is far too centralized, and decisions are made at a vast distance, whether geographically or socially, from the people being governed; and this leads to disaffection and disillusionment,” Leigh said. “Decision-making is done in private and without being subject to scrutiny.”
“In the British political system,” he said, “if we disagree with decisions made by our prime minister, we can vote the government out at the next election and elect a different government. In the EU, this is impossible because the council that acts as a cabinet is not responsible to the [European] Parliament, in which no party has a majority anyway.”
Some Catholics on the “Remain” side see the postwar attempts to forge closer links across Europe as a good thing, even if there are now aspects of the ever-more political EU that leave some of their co-religionists less happy with the evolving European project.
As Tannock told the Register, “The EU is a secular organization, and rightly so, but it has brought all religions and none together in the project of building Europe, so I believe Catholics should support it. Matters of conscience to Catholics like abortion and euthanasia are national, not EU competences, so you cannot bring that into the argument; and Catholic countries like Poland and Malta have different laws in these areas from many other member states.”
From a U.K. parliamentary perspective, Leigh sees things differently, albeit from the same Catholic starting point.
“You cannot stand for subsidiarity and agree with the European Union as it now exists and its unlimited trajectory of ‘ever-closer union,’” he said. “I am for Brexit because I believe staying in the European Union would have been a blank check for even further erosion of our status as a free, self-governing nation.”
“Catholic social teaching is important because many of the originators of the European Union were inspired by their Catholic vision of society and of a free society of European nations,” he added. “Christian ideas of social unity, cooperation and solidarity have now been totally replaced by an obsession with the EU as an institution, and the option is to consolidate and centralize more power in the hands of institutions.”
“The question of who or what it is to be a European, and what our common inheritance is, never comes up — unless it is used as a stick to beat Eastern Europeans with for opposing abortion, same-sex marriage and opposition to radical social policies,” said Leigh.
When approached for comment, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said that “no comment” on Brexit was being made by the conference. She did indicate that a joint statement is to be released March 29 by all of the main Christian churches through the ecumenical body “Churches Together in England.”
Speaking to The Spectator magazine just before Christmas, the anti-Brexit Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, stated that, in regard to the ongoing and bitter debate over Europe, he would never claim God is on one side or the other. He added, “These are not issues that define your Christianity.”
Register correspondent K.V. Turley writes from London.