It is clear that campaigning on the forthcoming referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union has got off to a bad start, with both sides more concerned with criticizing their opponents, and prophesying disaster if they do not win, than with putting a positive case for remaining or withdrawing. Such has been the tone of these exchanges that it has been satirically suggested that before long someone will be prophesying a plague of locusts. This is no way to conduct a serious debate.
The issues are mind-bogglingly complex – finance, free trade, control of borders, immigration, and so on. Perhaps the central issue is that of the sovereignty of Parliament. At the moment European Union law ranks higher than United Kingdom law, and European Union legislation passes into effect without any parliamentary debate or vote.
Is there a distinctively Protestant view on this? Vatican City is a sovereign state, and enclave within a European Union member; but not itself a member. It is difficult to judge how much influence the Vatican has on European Union affairs, but my feeling would be that it is less than the Church leadership would like. The European Union of today is a very different creature from the original six-member European Economic Community established by the Treaty of Rome(!) in 1958. In the area of social legislation, for example, it is pursuing policies that seem a long way from the concerns of traditional Catholicism. See, for example, the European Network of Legal Experts in the Field of Gender Equality 2013 Update on European Union Gender Equality Law, which is at http://ec.europa.eu/justice/gender-equality/files/your_rights/eu_gender_equality_law_update2013_en.pdf. The elaborate title and complicated web address seem symptomatic of the level of European Union bureaucracy.
Nevertheless, the Vatican has not been able to resist getting involved. Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States within the Holy See (in effect, the Vatican Foreign Secretary) gave an interview in which he gave a clear signal of the Vatican’s – presumably the pope’s – view:
The Holy See respects the ultimate decision of the British people – that’s for the British electorate to decide. But I think we would see it as being something that is not going to make a stronger Europe. Better in than out.
Meanwhile the pope was awarded the Charlemagne Prize. This is a German award ‘given to public figures or bodies distinguished by their outstanding work towards European unity or co-operation between its states.’ The awarding committee’s citation seems to take ‘Europe’ in the narrow sense of the European Union: ‘In a time when the European Union is facing the greatest challenge of the 21st century, it is the Pope “from the end of the world” who orients millions of Europeans to what the European Union brings together at its core: a valid system of values, respect for human dignity and civil liberties, the uniqueness of human beings whatever their ethnic, religious or cultural background and respect for our natural resources.’ I think we can take it that the Vatican is in favour of the European Union, and that the rest of Europe perceives the Vatican as being in favour of the European Union.
All this implies that the Vatican is seen as having some moral authority in Europe; otherwise it would be absurd even to notice the opinion of the head of a non-member state (the Vatican City) who is himself by origin from a non-European state (Argentina). That should give us as Protestants something to bear in mind when we come to cast our votes.
Further, there is lesson from church history in all this:
Getting rid of continental jurisdiction over the UK is as easy an enacting an Act of Parliament. It was an Act of Parliament that brought in major EU powers. It is through amending or repealing that same Statute that EU powers can be limited or removed.
England had to do this before. In 1533 Henry VIII was worried about the succession and believed his marriage to Catherine of Aragon to be void, as he had married his brother’s wife. The King wished English divines to settle the matter without fear of Rome intervening and overruling. The Crown appealed to long history and custom, and to the powers of Parliament, to assert its own authority at the expense of the see of Rome. Parliament willingly passed an Act preventing future appeal of legal cases to Rome or elsewhere overseas. The UK wanted to make its own decisions. Royal will used Parliamentary authority to allow the Crown to end appeals to Rome.
In language which rings down the centuries Parliament said: ‘…this realm of England is an empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one supreme head and King…And whereas the King his most noble progenitors and the nobility and Commons of this said realm, at divers and sundry Parliaments…made sundry ordinances, laws, statutes and provisions for the entire and sure conservation of the prerogatives liberties and pre-eminences of the said imperial crown of this realm, and of the jurisdictions spiritual and temporal of the same, to keep it from the annoyance as well as the see of Rome as from the authority of other foreign potentates attempting the diminution or violation thereof…’
‘This realm of England is an empire’, that is, it is subordinate to no foreign power. It was by asserting the independence of England in this way that Henry VIII’s Parliament accomplished the first steps of the Reformation in England. And that too should give us as Protestants something to bear in mind when we come to cast our votes.