One of the world’s most militantly secular and haplessly bureaucratic entities – which also labors mightily to spread its errors to the world – is facing a test and perhaps a defeat this week. On Thursday, voters in the United Kingdom will participate in a referendum on “Brexit,” or the British exit from the European Union. If they leave, the whole EU may be done.
If you read mainstream news sources, you’ll see headlines about how a British departure will send a shockwave through the global economy or is tantamount to economic insanity. As if we are all purely homo economicus now, and the passionate desire to leave the EU were some kind of irrational mass hysteria.
The truth is the urge to leave has nothing to do with economics and a lot to do with national sovereignty. It may very well be that the British economy will lag after departure, and that, in turn, will have global consequences. But the origins of the EU were much richer and broader than mere economics.
And Catholic. After World War II, Christian Democratic leaders took it upon themselves to solve one large and several smaller problems. The revolt against the EU may in fact be partly a wish to recover some of what has, since, been lost.
The large problem was the tension between France and Germany, which had almost destroyed Europe in two world wars. Two distinguished Catholic statesmen, Robert Schuman of France (declared a “servant of God” by Benedict XVI and perhaps on the way to sainthood) ) and Konrad Adenauer of Germany met secretly in Switzerland over a number of years (talking with post-Nazi Germany was still publicly impossible). They helped create the various international institutions, including NATO, which eventually led to the EU.
An even bigger question remained: what were to be the bases for the new Europe? The answer – again from Christian Democrats, most notably the great Thomist Jacques Maritain – was: a Christian view of the human person and human societies. CD parties in Germany and Italy were crucial in stopping the spread of Communism to Western Europe.
Older Catholic theorists like Chesterton and Belloc used to dream about a kind of modernized Christendom in a re-united Europe. That ideal, like the Christian democratic movement itself, was only partly possible for Europeans, given religious pluralism, political differences, and outright unbelief on the continent. The goal, however, was never another Holy Roman Empire, but a continent broadly embodying Christian values again.
It did, at first, until secularizing forces blocked even so much as the mention of Europe’s Christian past in official documents. The EU as we know it slowly began to take shape – but not slowly enough. Unlike the American Founders, the EU founders failed to think through the continental structure. A common complaint these days is the “democratic deficit” when a distant bureaucracy, lacking accountability, operates without regard to subsidiarity and national interests.
Until fairly recently, the bureaucratic overreach was widely felt, but more as a daily irritant than a spur to revolt. I once asked a European Parliament member what he did. He replied, not entirely in jest, that he made sure that EU carrots were of standard size. (There was also the Euro-condom, about which the less said the better.)
Among the stories emerging as the Brexit looms – along with rumblings in Hungary, Greece, and other nations – my favorite is the EU ruling that Finland re-introduce wolves – 9500 of them – to its forests, presumably for ecological reasons. The Finns objected that they were given no say in the matter, and that the directive infringed on other EU regulations allowing native peoples to manage their own lands (in Finland, they herd reindeer, and are opinionated about wolves).
Outside of Europe, the EU, like the international elites at the United Nations and in the U.S. State Department (when a certain party occupies the White House), has come to feel it quite proper to push abortion, population control, and gay “rights” on any nation where it has leverage. Pope Francis has rightly referred to this as “ideological colonization.” We might also call it demographic suicide. Every nation in Europe has a collapsing population.
Still, all this bureaucratic meddling might have gone on forever, if it weren’t for the current refugee crisis. As has also happened here in America, large numbers of potentially dangerous refugees have provoked reactions of various kinds. Even Austria, still smarting from its Nazi past, came very close to electing a “right-wing” leader a short while ago. Germany – which foolishly chose last year to admit a million refugees, three-quarters of them single young men – is seeking to curb further immigrant flows. France, Belgium, Scandinavia have witnessed terrorist attacks, as has Great Britain.
A large contingent of Britons seems to have said finally: enough. The EU carrot is tolerable; the EU failure to manage the refugee crisis is not. The situation is, to be sure, complex. It pits one Christian obligation – the duty to help those in need – against another: the obligation to protect innocent people from potential threats.
National leaders have an additional duty, as we will soon come to appreciate more: not to give us the pat lecture about openness and multiculturalism when we know that no culture that intends to survive can be infinitely open and pluralist.
We had and perhaps still have a chance to do something in the Middle East and North Africa to make the dangerous transits to Europe and elsewhere less urgent. Our failure in the Middle East has become so glaring that over fifty State Department employees just sent a letter to President Obama recommending he bomb Syria. Pause a moment to take that in. These are state department staff, people who mostly see their jobs in the world as promoting gay rights and abortion, apologizing for America, and talking foreigners to death.
No one knows for sure what next Thursday’s vote will bring – polls show a slight edge in favor of Brexit. But whether Britain leaves or stays, one thing is certain. It’s not only here in America that some fundamental shakeup is underway.