On June 23, 2016, the British people voted by referendum on a simple question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” A total of 17,410,742 (51.9 percent) voted “Leave” and 16,141,241 (48.1 percent) voted “Remain.” So far, the British people who voted “Leave” have little to see for that historic vote other than being bombarded near daily with arguments, threats – and insults – calculated to undermine, frustrate, and reverse that decision. Whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, Brexit has profound implications for those who care about religion and liberty. This two-part article will demonstrate how Judeo-Christian theology resolves the clash between the utopian dreams for the EU and UK national self-determination, and sets out the basis for a non-utopian Christian vision of Europe.
Utopia or dystopia?
Utopia is commonly used to mean “an imagined perfect place or state of things.” Such an ideal is as old as time itself. In Judeo-Christian theology, the Garden of Eden was utopian. Adam and Eve were placed there to work it and take care of it, blissfully unself-conscious of their own nakedness. The mysterious inhabitants of the city of Babel came together as one people with one language to build a city with a tower reaching to the heavens. When God saw the oppression of the Jews in Egypt, He promised them a “good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” The Catholic humanist Thomas More coined the term Utopia for his New World island, where princes were elected, there were few laws and no lawyers, all houses had gardens, housing rotated every 10 years by lot, doors were never locked or bolted, there was no private property within, men and women each wore clothes of one fashion only and were expected to inspect each other naked before choosing whom to marry. (See the G. Samson edition of Utopia, pp. 89, 91 93, 143, 148 and 149.) “Utopia” literally meant “not place” – an admission, perhaps, that it could never exist.
In reality all of these places turn out to be far from perfect. The serpent deceived Eve and humanity was expelled from the garden: shame, fear, painful toil, and enmity between genders began. God scattered the inhabitants of Babel, for their arrogance - the origin of nations. Israel flowed with milk and honey but the rich enjoyed mansions adorned with ivory, oppressed the poor and deprived them of justice. The dream ended for many as exiles, who later wept remembering Zion by the rivers of Babylon. More’s Utopia permitted slavery in the form of “bondsmen,” severely punished sex before marriage, allowed men to chastise their wives, discouraged counterfeit beauty (make-up), and banned what would seem to be much-needed wine-taverns and ale-houses to prevent idleness (pp. 110, 140-3, 146-147).
There have been many utopian visions of society since, including Nazi Germany and the Communist USSR. Each has promised much to the true believers. Yuri Slezkine’s House of Government contrasts the universalist Christian message with the exclusiveness of socialism. For Marxists, this meant industrial workers (p. 36). For those in the Soviet House of Government, it meant hundreds of fully furnished apartments for the elite – including commissars, Marxist scholars, and Red Army commanders - with incredible facilities for its time, including hairdressers, a library, and a tennis court (p. xi). For two orphaned children, a boy and a girl, in Kazakhstan it meant having to share eating their two-year-old sibling: the price of collectivising agriculture (pp. 428-431). Thankfully, secular, atheistic empires have poor longevity. Observing that Bolshevism had never been a popular movement, Slezkine poignantly closes his monumental work saying, “The Soviet Age did not last beyond one human lifetime” (p. 957). Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich lasted no more than 12 years.
Christian society is not an abstract, top-down vision of a perfect world ultimately based on compulsion, but one of transformed individual choices made within a framework of the rule of law, recognising the imperfection of the world.
In New Testament theology, Christ enters a world where the Law and Prophets have failed to create a utopian society. The flaws are endless, the Temple had been turned into a market-place, religious leaders permitted easy divorce, a woman could be stoned for adultery by equally guilty religious leaders. Christ’s teaching of the kingdom of God as good news might seem just another utopia. However, it is utterly distinct. Utopia comes from inside us, not from without. Human nature will always destroy utopia. Those who seek to impose it by law “clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside … are full of greed and wickedness.” A person must be “born again,” his relationship with God restored. Accordingly, the kingdom is compared with a mustard seed, something that starts as the smallest of seeds but becomes “a tree so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches,” or yeast that is “mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” This is more than just religious jargon. Taking a key issue in utopianism – poverty – the Biblical framework includes respect for human dignity, property rights and the fulfilment of promises. It provides a first-rate model for how prosperity can be generated but nonetheless makes relieving poverty a matter of individual conscience. (Compare Matt. 26:10-12 with 19:21.) Christian society is not an abstract, top-down vision of a perfect world ultimately based on compulsion, but one of transformed individual choices made within a framework of the rule of law, recognising the imperfection of the world.
The European Union
The hopes and dreams for some form of European nation can be traced back to antiquity. As Gwythian Prins notes, “The current Project was conceived in the horrors of the battlefield of Verdun, had its first flowering and shrivelling in the 1920s, and became a political reality in the wake of World War II” (“Beyond the Ghosts” in P. Minford and J.R. Shackleton, Breaking Up is Hard to Do… London: IEA, 2016, p. 60). It is an honourable vision based on sincere beliefs. Europa, the EU’s own website, hails Jean Monnet as “the unifying force behind the birth of the European Union,” quoting him as saying, “There will be no peace in Europe, if the states are reconstituted on the basis of national sovereignty.” It is interesting to see the vision of the EU as portrayed on Europa, its website. There are “EU symbols”: these include the European flag, featuring “a circle of 12 gold stars on a blue background. They stand for the ideals of unity, solidarity, and harmony among the peoples of Europe.” There is a European anthem based on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1823), set to an eighteenth-century poem said to have expressed its author’s “idealistic vision of the human race becoming brothers – a vision Beethoven shared.” As it says, “In the universal language of music, this anthem expresses the European ideals of freedom, peace and solidarity.”
The EU declares, “EU values are common to the member countries in a society in which inclusion, justice, solidarity, and non-discrimination prevail. These values are an integral part of our European way of life.” They are summed up under headings of “Human dignity,” “Freedom,” “Democracy,” “Equality,” “Rule of Law” and “Human Rights.” It describes how the EU was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 “for advancing the causes of peace, reconciliation, democracy, and human rights in Europe.” Undoubtedly, all this is worthy and utopian stuff. Like motherhood and apple-pie, who would seek to criticise it?
If the EU is empty, then it is a vacuum which has yet to be filled – and history sets dangerous precedents for this.
However, the EU’s vision of utopia is a matter for debate. It aspires towards creating a new nation or super-state. This already comprises a geographical area of more than four million square kilometers and a population of 508 million people from 28 nation states. It is hungry for expansion and greater integration. Its founding principle is “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.” The objective was initially included in the 1957 Treaty Establishing the European Community and has survived ever since in the EU Treaties. (See House of Commons Library Briefing Paper “Ever Closer Union” in the EU Treaties and Court of Justice case law. No. 07230. November 16, 2015, p. 3.) Insofar as this necessitates, in substance, the effective destruction of 28 nation states’ sovereignty with little democratic mandate, the EU is a danger.
What is clear in the eyes of more and more voters is that the EU now primarily exists to serve various elites and interest groups who benefit from it to the exclusion of others. One recent survey of 10,000 “Europeans” and 1,800 members of the elite – decision-makers in politics, media and civic life across the EU – showed that 37 percent felt that people like them had benefitted from EU membership, in contrast to only nine percent of the public. Some see this reflected in the Brexit vote, claiming that voting Remain or Leave was about class and inequality, a fracture between the “globalised middle class and the anxious majority,” the “left-behind” turning the tables on urban cosmopolitans: indeed, divides in “identity, values and outlook.” Others watch with alarm at the EU’s underwhelming response to Spanish police beating up Catalonians seeking peacefully to determine their own future, forcibly removing them from polling stations, firing on crowds with rubber bullets, dragging young women away by their hair. Jan Zielonka in his aptly named book, Is the EU Doomed? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014) started by setting out his credentials as a “genuine European.” His reasons why the EU may be doomed include its unrealistic vision; inability to remedy greed, selfishness, and conflict; and inability to reform itself (p. xiv). Prins observes how the EU is reaching the natural lifespan of any political apparatus without a demos (p. 79).
Margaret Thatcher commented on the infinite malleability of the idea of Europe:
If you are pious, it is synonymous with Christendom. If you are liberal, it embodies the Enlightenment. If you are right-wing, it represents a bulwark of barbarism against the 'dark continents.' If you are left-wing, it epitomises internationalism, human rights, and Third World aid. (Quoted in William Collins. Statecraft, 2002, and republished as an extract in On Europe, 2017, p. 12.)
She concluded it was empty. If empty, it is a vacuum which has yet to be filled – and history sets dangerous precedents for this.
The key protagonists of the early European project in the 1950’s included some no doubt who shared an explicit moral/religious vision for its future. As Nick Spencer of the British think tank Theos has observed, they were overwhelmingly Catholics from Christian Democrat parties. Frank Furedi’s Populism and the European Culture Wars (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018) identifies several important statements by key figures in the history of the EU who sought to put Christianity at the heart of the European vision. For example, Robert Schuman in 1958 justified a democratic model of governance that was “deeply rooted in Christian basic values,” whilst Jacques Delors in 2011 recognised the major role of Catholicism and Christianity in Europe’s constitution (p. 14).
Furedi identifies how dramatic the change from that earlier vision has been. Specifically, he argues that in the run up to a 2012 European Parliament debate, policymakers portrayed the new Hungarian Constitution’s references to its national and Christian traditions as dangerous (p. 12). Guy Verhofstadt, noteworthy for his antagonism as the European Parliament’s lead Brexit negotiator, demanded a report be drawn up to investigate whether there was a breach of “our values.” Others insisted that Christianity was alien to the EU’s values. One French MEP went so far as to declare that “European values are not Christian values” (p. 14). Unsurprisingly, Furedi has roundly criticised the EU for its advocacy of 1945 Year Zero History. This approach has enabled Europe to avoid having to come to terms with its messy past and permitted the erasure of Christianity from its official memory (p. 91).
Christianity rejects the idea that a perfect society is just around the corner and, therefore, treats (or ought to treat) all such claims with scepticism. There is a need for spiritual discernment, as visions of a perfect society can be overwhelmingly seductive. Any proposed utopia must address these basic questions: How does utopia address flawed human nature? How can utopia be internalised rather than compelled? How does utopia treat those who wish to leave or join it from outside? Is utopia based on spiritual values, or is it materialistic? How does it care for the common good, for the weakest – the unborn, the elderly, the disabled? Who does utopia really benefit: the common good, or an elite group, whether determined by race, class, wealth, education, linguistic ability, or another factor? Does it allow for the fact that one person’s dream another person’s nightmare?
Despite the EU’s utopian pretensions in its declared values, there are obvious weaknesses waiting to be put to the test. The second part of this article will evaluate the EU’s response to the Brexit vote and will explore an alternative non-utopian vision for Europe.