THE EU REFERENDUM DEBATE – a sermon preached at St Giles, Godshill, on June 5th, Trinity 2
Canon Gary Philbrick
I’ve been wanting for some time to reflect on the EU Referendum debate, but (a) I haven’t found the right occasion until now, and (b) I’ve felt rather constrained because I have strong views on the matter. I’m not going to speak for very long, so there will be the chance for you to offer your own reflections afterwards if you wish.
Rather like St Paul, when he several times tells his listeners in Corinth that ‘I say, not the Lord’ [I Cor 7:12], or ‘I have no command of the Lord’ [I Cor 7:12], I’ve decided that the only way I can honestly preach about this is to say what my view is – which I’m not saying is the only view which Christians can hold, or anything like that – but I’ll say what my view is, and then go on to reflect on the way in which I think the Lord is calling us to enter into the debate and to come to our own conclusions.
So, for what it’s worth, I’ll set out my stall: I think we should remain in the EU, for a whole range of reasons – economic, social, community; reasons to do with our place in the world, and the fact that we will be affected by what happens in Europe, an enormously important trading partner, whether we like it or not – and I’d rather have a place at the table than be in the position of Norway or Switzerland, where we would be bound by many EU rules, but wouldn’t have a say in them. Had I had a vote in the Scottish Referendum, last year, I would also have voted to stay in the UK, for similar reasons. So that’s my position.
Having said that, I think there are some things from the Lord, from the resources of Christian wisdom and tradition, which might help up to make up our own minds on what is probably the most crucial decision affecting our future for the past 40 years or so. What happens on June 23rd will affect all of us – whether we are young people, raising families, home owners or renters, pensioners – all of us. And if you have not registered to vote yet, you have until Tuesday 7th to do so.
Let’s look at one or two areas of the debate.
The one which has received the most attention, I suppose, is the economy – and there has been a good deal more heat than light in this area of the debate. The economy is really important, but not, I think, the most important factor in the debate.
Of course, we want a secure economic future for this country – and, as it happens, as Christians, for all countries, especially the poorest. Without a secure economic base, we cannot fund our health service, or benefits, or education, or pensions – all the ways in which we collectively care for each other, and especially for the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society. So, how we judge the economic impact of leaving or remaining will make a big difference. The economy is a really important part of how we decide how to vote – but not, perhaps, the most important.
Higher than that I would put some of the geo-political impacts of remaining or leaving. What is our view of ourselves in the world, as a nation on the world stage? Are we to be a confidant, outward-looking nation, playing our part on the world stage, punching above our weight, as we have traditionally done for hundreds of years; or are we to be a more isolationist state, protecting ourselves and our borders, and looking after ourselves? The answers to those questions don’t necessarily imply one way of voting. We could be isolationist in Europe or out of it. But as we come to vote, I think we need to ponder what sort of nation we want to be, and what sort of role do we want to play in the world. What value do we put on being part of a huge democratic bloc of nations, and on our membership of the European Courts of Justice and Human Rights, alongside other European and international bodies?
The economy is important, as it deciding on our place in the world.
I’ve mentioned Human Rights, and I would want the UK to be an important defender of human rights, along with democracy, throughout the world. We are extremely fortunate to live in such a blessed part of the world – socially, economically, democratically – and we should continue to be at the forefront of working for those benefits to be promoted throughout the world.
Another thread of our decision-making should be war and peace. I think we are living in the longest period of peace between European nations for hundreds of years. As we decide whether to leave or remain, we need to think about the long-term impact of that on the possibilities of conflict in Europe.
Another area to consider is that of workers’ rights – hours of working, maternity and paternity leave – not all is rosy in the world of employment, but nor do we have some of the terrible working conditions which were seen here in the past, and which are still a feature of the working lives of millions of people around the world. Would our workers’ rights and other social benefits be better protected in or out of the EU?
Another area which is often cited as an area of concern is immigration, and this is a highly complex area to reflect on theologically, partly because it is treated so emotively by our media, and partly because it is difficult to get a clear understanding of what is going on and the impact it has on us.
Some things are clear, to me at least. We need immigration. As a country we are getting older, and we need bright young things to come here from around the world to develop our economy, pay their taxes, and provide my pension! I’m not advocating an open doors policy, where anyone one from anywhere can just come and settle here. But I do think we ought to be flattered that this country is such an attractive place to live that people want to come here – and if the latest employment figures are correct, there are more people in employment than there have ever been, so we are clearly absorbing those coming to this country from Europe and other places into the workforce.
But as far as the EU Debate is concerned, I’m not sure immigration should be a very important factor. I am very concerned about the impact the war in Syria and other places is having on migrants and refugees, but I think that is largely a separate issue from whether to leave or remain in the EU. If we were to leave, it seems very likely that any trading deal would still require the free movement of workers to and from the EU – that’s the case for Norway and Switzerland, where I believe immigration is higher than here. Immigration is an important issue, and concerns people a lot, but I’m not sure that our membership of or exit from the EU will make much difference to that.
So, how do we come to make our decision? Well, for one thing, for many people, it will be a gut reaction, rather than a thought-through decision. And that’s fine on one level – we are often taught to trust our instincts.
But as we think through this, and pray about it, we’ll need to consider the economy, the future for employment for our young people, the effects of leaving or remaining on our place in the world, on human rights, on workers’ rights and employment laws, on war and peace, alongside other factors.
I’m not sure I can say this without betraying my own views, but I think a lot of it comes to how we want to look at ourselves in relation to the rest of Europe and the rest of the world. I want us to step forward confidently, playing an important role on the world stage, looking outwards to the wider world, Europe and farther afield, as trading partners, and being influential in improving the lives of others around the world.
I don’t want us to be looking inwards, only to our own interests, putting up barriers to trade or human rights, hankering after some imagined past age of glory.
That may be a word from me, rather than from the Lord, but what I’m sure the Lord is saying is that we should think through how we vote carefully and prayerfully, and come to a decision based on what is best for us and for the rest of the world, which he created, which he loves, and for the whole of which he died and rose again.