Faith in Europe

Christian Progressive Politics and the looming battle over Europe

Eu-ties.jpgLast month's debate on Europe between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage didn't stir many passions on the left. This week's second-leg of the 'Nick and Nigel show' could be dismissed by many of us as a circus sideshow, save serving to reinforce the importance of the European dimension to so many aspects of government and our lives. As we move closer to May's European election and the looming possibility of a referendum this may be no bad thing.

Highlighting popular discontent with Europe has been a popular rallying-cry for the right wing in Britain for decades. Broadly speaking four decades after membership the European Union as it is now called remains a largely un-loved institution in Britain, the punch-bag of populist right-wing press, the bug-bear of successive governments.

For many arguing for a Euro-exit does play to latent patriotic sentiments and anxieties over the single European currency, which were often shared by recent Labour governments. The rise of the cheeky- Farage has many excited, as he represents a departure from a political class that struggles to inspire. The declaration in February by a UKIP councillor that recent flooding had been the result of God’s anger at the passing of Same-Sex marriage brought home that any Christian view of politics they may have is often unrecognisable to those of us on the left. The latest round of UKIP gaffes may dent their credibility further as electable politicians however their strength in offering an anti-establishment protest may be undiminished.

While UKIP undoubtedly conceals some gaff-prone figures whom many of us wouldn’t leave our kids with let alone elect to high office the assault on the European project in general is one in which we ought not to be fellow-travellers. When one examines the Conservative project for ‘reform’ of Europe or complains about its ‘intrusiveness’ into our affairs it is often telling to see the cases it highlights.

The examples are easy to find in January 2014 no fewer than 95 Eurosceptic Conservative MPs sent a letter to the Prime Minister calling for the UK to have an opt-out for every single piece of European law. In the letter they said they wanted to "lift EU burdens on business" and "dis-apply the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights". The ‘red tape’ they speak of includes the EU Agency Workers Directive, the right to paid annual leave and parental rights. While none should shy away from reforming or improving imperfect institutions like those of Brussels none of us should be under any illusions of what Tory ‘reform’ would look like.

Trade unions have been among the first to highlight the danger posed to the weakening of EU regulations, after all they took the most convincing to join the European project. After having been initially suspicious of Brussels they were won over partly by a devoutly Catholic trades unionist in the form of Jacques Delores. When as president of the European Commission Delores laid-out the foundation of a social chapter to what would become the European Union much to the chagrin of the then Conservative governments of Thatcher and Major. The Labour government of Tony Blair ended Britain’s long-standing objections to this social legislation allowing for greater rights and work and health and safety. It is this kind of basic worker protection, that the Tory-UKIP agenda seeks to withdraw from. Strip off the ‘red-tape’ from Brussels and you could very open-up a very British trap door through which the most vulnerable could fall.

But if the Conservative-led clamour to withdraw from Europe is one in pursuit of unregulated labour, it is also about unregulated markets. The need for changing the culture and regulatory safeguards at the top of the country's financial institutions has been a source of concern for religious leaders in this country ever since the start of the 2008 crisis. It may not be up to the Church to outline the best proposal for such regulation but to the Tory-led government this looks like another example of Brussels red-tape. In September the government launched a legal challenge to the European Union's cap on bankers' bonuses, with one Labour MEP who worked on the law in Brussels not being slow to point out that 40% of Tory party donations in 2012 had come from the City of London.  

In the last three years the coalition government has begun legal proceedings against the EU in order to prevent not only a cap on banker's bonuses but also on preventing “short-selling” and providing liquidity to clearing houses. The Treasury has also famously called-in the lawyers when it introduced the Financial Transactions Tax, the so-called “Robin Hood tax”, designed to add a nominal fee to every single financial transaction in order to fund global development. This idea has gained much support having been endorsed by everyone from the TUC to the Vatican. Labour have climbed on-board and Labour MEPs supported it in the European Parliament.

It would take a long time to list all other areas where the EU could provide the potential for enhancing the common good and where Conservatives and UKIP euroscepticism would seek to stop it. One obvious example would be UKIP's Godfrey Bloom referring to EU aid sent to some of the world's poorest people as aid to “Bongo-bongo land” or the Conservative-led government opting-out of the EU Directive to prevent human trafficking. Abandoning Europe for the sake of narrow political considerations could limit our ambition and injure our aims.

An exit from Europe would amount to many negative things, but from the point of view of Christian progressive politics it would mark so many wasted possibilities, the abandonment of potential. The Church of England’s European diocese puts it plainly For the Church the primary purpose of politics - even European politics - is the promotion of human flourishing and the conditions that are necessary to make this happen” a retreat from Europe would be a step backwards in our attempts at furthering the Common good.


Paul Hagan

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