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The future of Europe, the UK and Ireland – a Christian response

by Dr Tom Healy

The following is Dr Tom Healy’s summary of a talk he gave to the Church of Ireland European Affairs Working Group, which is part of the Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue.

Europe is a continent of 750 million people of whom just over 500 million live in the European Union, as we know it. Europe is a hugely diverse and complex continent with a fascinating and often troubled history. The emergence of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951 on the ashes of a world war that destroyed much of Europe signalled the beginning of a new project – to unite old enemies and to create the conditions for positive economic cooperation. This project also signalled a cooperation of some large and small Western European countries in political, economic and ideological opposition to the USSR and its satellite states. The stage was set for the cold war until the late 1980s. In time, the ECSC evolved into the European Economic Community, then the European Community and, today, the European Union. It represents a long–term ambitious political project to create not just a single and free–moving market for goods, services, labour and capital but a single political compact with shared fiscal, monetary and social policies.

The decision of a majority of people in the United Kingdom on the 23rd June 2016 was a historic one with profound implications not only for the UK but for the rest of the European Union including the Republic of Ireland. Assuming that ‘Brexit’ will happen and assuming that Northern Ireland will follow the rest of the UK in leaving the European Union, Ireland will see a very significant and historical re–organisation of trade, goods and services regulatory arrangements and agreements on movement of persons on the island of Ireland. One thing is certain – nothing is certain. Brexit constitutes a major opportunity and, at one and the same time a threat. 

In framing and including the prayer for the European Union in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland some 13 years ago, the authors could hardly have foreseen what was to happen in 2016. It is reasonable to assume that the prayer provided, at the time, a prayerful summary of sentiment about the EU across the Church on this island:

O Lord our heavenly Father, we pray you to guide and direct the member states of the European Union. Draw us closer to one another, and help us to attain justice and freedom, and to use our resources for the good of people everywhere; through Jesus Christ our Lord. (2004 Book of Common Prayer, page 145)

Were the matter of ‘Brexit’ or, indeed, Eirexit to have been floated either then or more recently it is likely that a response along the lines of ‘that would be an ecumenical matter’ would be in order! Yet, what happens within the current EU and across the continent of Europe to which Ireland and Great Britain will continue to belong is a matter of profound concern to all Christians. Political stability, economic progress and social justice demand a considered response from Christians everywhere. The rise in climate change scepticism in the USA means that the EU ought to show courageous leadership on this most vital of issues for all of humanity in the 21st century.

The immediate pressure points of economic instability, the rise of extremist politics and the unrelenting pressure of inward migration challenges all of us to provide thoughtful and compassionate responses. Much is at stake for Ireland given the patterns of trade and investment interdependence as well as the well established rights of travel, work and associated matters. Particular sectors, regions and groups will be vulnerable more than others to whatever changes. Already, currency fluctuations have uncovered vulnerabilities in sectors such as hospitality, retail and food manufacture (with Northern Ireland exporters to the EU and the Republic of Ireland experiencing short–term gain since the sharp devaluation in sterling in 2016). Depending on the exact outcomes of negotiations which may take years to fully conclude we may envisage a temporary post–Brexit deal on trade and other matters to be followed by more profound and definitive arrangements in 5 or 10 years’ time. A so–called ‘hard Brexit’ is likely to have the greatest medium–term impact especially on those sectors such as food, chemicals and financial services. Other negotiated outcomes such as maintenance of a customs union for the UK and the EU (thus maintaining a common external tariff on goods and services) would prove less disruptive than a ‘hard Brexit’. While it seems unlikely, the development of a single European market (such as prevails in the case of Norway which is not a member of the EU) would offer the least disruption as it would allow for widespread freedom of movement for people, capital and goods.

Any plan to deal with, and plan for, Brexit must acknowledge that instability in other parts of the EU is likely to change our assumptions on what is possible or likely. At the beginning of 2017 it very much looks like the case that the forces pulling the EU apart are stronger than the forces pulling it together. However, one should not jump to any conclusions about the future. The future of Europe and the European Union within Europe will be determined not only by elected political leaders and unelected technocrats but by the peoples of Europe themselves who remain sovereign. The basis of future arrangements will be influenced by popular sentiment and judgment taking account of how well the EU provides the basis for stability, progress and fairness. If a large enough number of people do not feel for a long enough period of time that the EU is delivering then people will turn towards separation from, or revision of, current institutions. 

How can we contribute towards a dialogue about the future of Europe? A number of practical suggestions and ideas are worth considering. Some of these might even involve pain but could be far more effective than any number of declarations and memoranda. Could we consider, for example, some of the following:

    • A renewal of prayer about Europe and the European Union in public liturgies?
    • A planned, systematic and organised programme of hospitality to welcome, house, support, train and activate refugees?
    • A programme of hospitality to involve specific, time–bound and measurable actions at parish, diocesan and national levels?
    • Ongoing dialogue with other Christian churches at national and European level to raise awareness about the many economic, social and environmental issues impacting on Europeans?

      In the early centuries Europe was the beneficiary of Christian missionaries who came from the south and from the east. Likewise, a Briton heard ‘the voice of the Irish’ (Glór na nGael) and brought the message of hope and salvation to this island. Will we hear, again, the cries of our sisters and brothers martyred, oppressed and driven from their homelands by great hardship and economic need? We may not realise that we could be entertaining angels in our very own homes, parishes and dioceses. Whoever thought that the gospel of good joy would not be challenging and sometimes most difficult for us who profess to live by its values. Patrick is said to have written this in his Confessions (17):

      I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.

      By its very nature Christianity is internationalist, counter–cultural and radical in its appeal to the deepest human values.

      Dr Tom Healy is Director of the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI). All views expressed in this article are in personal capacity only. He is studying to become a Diocesan Reader in the Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough. His reflections may be found at www.dochas–nua.blogspot.ie