London, England, Dec 14, 2018 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- The question of how the United Kingdom will leave the European Union, and on what terms, has monopolized British politics since the 2016 referendum in which voters decisively opted out of the international body.
Since that vote, debate about Brexit has created a cultural and political divide in the U.K. Many argue that by leaving the EU, Britain is turning its back from more than a political structure, but from its long-standing commitment to international cooperation.
The Church has no official position on Brexit, but many bishops have expressed their personal views on the subject, mostly in favor of the E.U.
Archbishop Paul Gallagher, an Englishman and the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States, came closest to voicing an official Vatican line when he said, shortly before the Brexit vote, that the British departure was “not something that would make a stronger Europe.”
As with most political questions, individual Catholics are free to form their own opinions in good conscience, and in Britain Catholics can be found on both sides of the debate.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, Member of Parliament for North East Somerset, is one of the most visible Catholic politicians in the U.K. He is also one of the leading voices in favor of Brexit. He spoke to CNA about his views on the Catholic case for leaving the EU, and why he finds it unsurprising that many in the Church appear to have a preference for the union.
“I think there is a great deal of residual affection for the EU because of its origins,” he told CNA. “As a project, it was first put forward by Christian Democrats from the founding member states, and it was intended to have a Christian and democratic ethos.”
But, Rees-Mogg said, while its origins may have been rooted in a democratic and Christian vision of Europe, this inheritance has long since been left behind.
“It is worth recalling that, over the strong objections of successive popes, there was no reference to either God or the Christian heritage of Europe in the proposed EU constitution [which was rejected by French and Dutch voters and became the Lisbon Treaty]. Whatever its origins were, the EU is now a profoundly secular state.”
The MP said that examples of liberal secularism taking precedence in the EU’s governance are not hard to find.
In 2004, Rocco Buttiglione was nominated by the Italian government to serve on the European Commission, the body that proposes EU legislation and manages the union’s day-to-day business. His nomination was withdrawn after other EU politicians objected to his Catholic views on marriage, family, and homosexuality, characterizing them as incompatible with a senior position in the union.
Rees-Mogg pointed out to CNA that the EU has also been also staunchly supportive of the spread of abortion in Africa, calling the policy a “small but indicative” part of the union’s work and values.
Instead of a Christian organization, or even a secular-but-neutral one, Rees-Mogg suggested that the EU might be better understood as “arguably moving in the direction of an apostate state; what the Church has historically considered the very worst outcome.”
As a political structure, the EU is meant to function as a democratic body, in which participating countries pool their collective sovereignty in service of the good of all.
Recently, Pope Francis has spoken frequently about “clericalism” in the Church, in which authority is exercised, even abused, for the benefit of those in power and without reference to the people they are meant to serve, or accountability to them.
According to Rees-Mogg, a similar kind of dynamic is at work within the EU which, he says, functions in practice as a “clericalist state” in which the sovereignty of the people is lost to an elite, not shared among equals.
“If you look at how European leaders come to power in the EU, they are appointed by and accountable to each other, not the people. The European Commission is the final destination for so many politicians rejected by voters in their own countries, even their own parties. They are an elite which looks after its own.”
“From the U.K. alone, we see a litany of politicians like Chris Patten and Neil Kinnock, who lost elections and yet were given more power as European Commissioners than ever they had as elected politicians in Britain. In that respect it is worse than the House of Lords.”
One of the principles of Catholic social teaching is subsidiarity, the organizing principle in which decisions made at the lowest level possible, to allow for greater accountability and responsiveness to the needs of the community. It is also a principle incorporated in to many of the EU’s founding treaties.
But, Rees-Mogg warned, the EU’s references to subsidiarity are in themselves no guarantee of accountability.
“Subsidiarity is a principle which I treat with the greatest of caution. We must remember that it is taken from perhaps the most centralised organization in the world, after all. It is the nation-state which is, in the end, subject to the people through elections, and it is the nation-state which properly serves the people and defends their interests.”
As the U.K. government searches for a post-Brexit settlement acceptable to both the EU and the British parliament, trade remains a serious sticking point; the free flow of goods across the Irish border is one of several key considerations.
Many in the U.K. wanted to see a common agreement on the minimum standards of goods, to ensure that free trade can continue. But, from Rees-Mogg’s perspective, EU regulations are often directed at creating a barrier to trade, not preserving common standards. The EU imposes regulatory standards on a rage of goods, including – for example- a minimum and maximum acceptable curvature for bananas.
“These non-tariff barriers are not about maintaining common standards. What they are is a conscious effort to block imports, even from some of the poorest countries, and they serve the European Union as an organization, not the people.”
As Prime Minister Theresa May attempts to forge a last-minute deal that will satisfy all sides, it remains to be seen what final form Brexit will take.
In the meantime, Rees-Mogg told CNA he will continue to work for a Britain free from what he sees as an elitist institution- the EU.
“In a democracy, the first duty of a government is to protect the freedom of its people and the first freedom of the people is to hold their leaders to account.”