There has been much comment about the British vote on June 23 to leave the European Union—the decision known as “Brexit.” What would a Catholic response to the Brexit decision be? On the face of it, there would not seem to be much to say about the matter from a specifically Catholic point of view. What does religion have to do with a political and economic issue such as the British leaving the European Union? But as with all actions, the moral teachings of our Church can be seen to have a relationship to the Brexit decision.
To start off, let’s look at some facts regarding the Brexit vote. At first, it seemed that the vote to leave the EU meant that Britain actually would leave the EU, with all of the economic and political consequences that would go with it. In the days since the Brexit vote, it has become clear that the referendum called by a prime minister who opposed it and favored by members of three parties (Conservative, Labour, and the U.K. Independence Party) who had no coordinated plan for what to do if they won will not lead to a clear break by Britain from the EU. The sudden slump in world stock markets immediately following the vote appears to be only the most obvious of a number of reasons why the Leave proponents are having second thoughts about following through with the full implications of their victory.
First, there are potential economic dangers of the decision. The short-term stock market losses that have already occurred are not the worst of it–the markets will probably recover from them. Worse would be the long-term consequences. Amazingly, even Brexit proponents admitted they had no economic policy in mind for the new post-EU “independent” Britain. But one would expect that the policies would probably be some form of economic nationalism—more tariffs, immigration barriers, etc., that will be aimed, at least, at being more favorable to Britain’s economic interests than the “free trade” policies of the pan-Europe EU. Such policies would mirror the economically nationalistic policies increasingly favored in many other European countries and by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in the United States. They would reverse seventy years of economic internationalism that has prevailed in the West since the end of World War II and has generally resulted in a prosperous Europe and world. It would bring the world back to the economically nationalistic policies that prevailed in the 1920s and 1930s—and that led to World War II.
The political consequences of Brexit would be even worse than the economic ones. The European Union has served as a political as well as economic unifier for the democratic countries of western Europe, along with NATO binding these countries together first against the Soviet Union-dominated communist bloc, and then against a number of post-Cold War dangers, including terrorism. Britain has been the United States’ closest ally in Europe—an entry-point for common policies with the rest of western Europe. With Britain detached from Europe, it would be harder for the U.S. to coordinate policies with Europe against threats such as Vladimir Putin’s revanchist Russia or Iran, where the West needs to closely monitor last year’s nuclear agreement. Here again, as with economics, the growth of xenophobic and/or radical nationalism in Britain and many other European countries reminds one of the situation in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe that led to World War II. History never repeats itself exactly, so a similar war is not to be predicted. But with nationalism also rising in China, Russia, the United States, and other countries and religious conflict already boiling over in the Middle East, a new conflict could go in wider and perhaps even more frightening directions.
Thus, British leaders seem to backing down from the full implications of a complete break from the European Union and considering some kind of compromise.
Keeping in mind these background facts, Catholic social teaching can contribute several ideas that are useful for examining the Brexit situation. First, we should look at the basic Catholic moral principles enunciated in the Ten Commandments. The Church cares about economic situations such as Brexit because the Church cares about the physical lives of people and their goods. This comes under the Fifth Commandment (“You shall not kill”) and the Seventh Commandment (“You shall not steal”). Further, the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity are relevant to the situation. These principles can be viewed as inclining toward action in opposite directions and thus as indicating actions that should be avoided as extremes. Solidarity holds that people should stand together and support one another (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1939-42). Subsidiarity holds that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1883). Thus, the principle of solidarity would imply that the European countries should stand together and support one another for mutual benefit in organizations such as the European Union, while the principle of subsidiarity would imply that Britain has the right to secede from the EU if it feels that it interferes with its right to control its essential functions. In view of the conflicting tendencies of these two Catholic principles, a wise course of action would appear to be for Britain to try to balance the two principles and try work out some sort of compromise where it made arrangements to cooperate with the EU in many matters while still retaining control over other matters, for instance immigration, that it considered essential to maintain under its own sovereignty.
In this, the four cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice will have to be exercised to arrive at a compromise that will be for the common good of Britain and the EU. Prudence, to attain the best set of conditions for Britain’s relation to the EU; temperance, not to go too far in either direction of giving up too many of its rights to the EU nor of denying its responsibilities to the other European nations; fortitude, to stay the course on this middle path despite the frustrations and temptations to just give up and take an easy way out of the dilemma; and justice, to give due consideration to the needs of both the British people and the people of the EU countries.
The millions of British voters who voted to exit will not find it easy to make this compromise. But here we can see how the Christian concept of sacrifice applies to human actions. The British people should choose to perform the Christian action of sacrifice by giving up some of what they want for the benefit of those who wanted Britain to remain in the EU. This is the essence of Christianity: Jesus said that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Jesus made this sacrifice for us. We are not often called as He did to give up our lives for others, but often Christians are called to give up at least some of their desires for the benefit of others. In this case, both those who favor Britain remaining in the EU (both in Britain and in the rest of the EU) and those who want Britain to exit the EU should be willing to sacrifice some of their desires and arrive at some kind of compromise.
In the days after the vote, various compromises have been proposed: Negotiating conditions with the EU for Britain to remain in the organization; a formal exit from the EU but negotiating provisions for economic union with it such as those enjoyed by Norway; or less satisfactory solutions such as a breakup of the United Kingdom in which Scotland and Northern Ireland secede from the kingdom and join the EU as independent countries (or, in Northern Ireland’s case, perhaps after a union with the Republic of Ireland). Only experts with detailed knowledge of the facts can make the best predictions of what might result from each of these scenarios, but it seems reasonable to judge that one of the first two compromises would be the best result. The EU countries themselves do not seem inclined to favor such compromises because that would encourage other EU states with grievances to secede and then try to negotiate conditions favorable to themselves. That could lead to the progressive destruction of the entire organization. But, as with Britain, the EU itself should prepare to sacrifice some of its preferences to arrive at a reasonable compromise with Britain. A forgiving and compromising EU will ease the transition to the post-Brexit era, and good treatment of Britain may eventually entice it to return to the EU. Reform of EU procedures may help to achieve this and be for the benefit of other restive EU nations and lead to a stronger EU in the long term.
Catholic moral teaching cannot supply easy answers for all moral problems. Unless the situation is quite simple, there are usually many complicated factors that must be taken into account. However, Catholic moral teaching does provide a framework within which moral judgements can be made. The Ten Commandments establish basic norms that set the parameters for moral action, and principles such as solidarity and subsidiarity provide tools for analyzing moral situations. T he specific circumstances of each situation must be considered in accordance with the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice. Finally, the virtue of charity (described here as love, sacrifice), the highest virtue of all, ultimately governs Christians’ every moral action. Thus, although they cannot provide easy answers, Catholic moral principles can aid Catholics in arriving at moral judgements regarding complicated political, economic, and social situations such as Brexit.
(Photo from catholicherald.co.uk)