‘Jim, the way the British are debating the European Union is shallow and non-biblical’, said my Italian friend. ‘You are just talking about the economy, and how Brexit will affect jobs, and it’s very shallow and disappointing.’ I am not quoting him verbatim here, but that was the sense of what he said. That criticism has motivated me to start this blog. Whether the principles I am blogging here meet with his approval, I have no idea. But he was right to challenge us to think more deeply. So, having set out in previous posts the principles of a biblical understanding of nationhood, and the dangers of race-hatred and idolatrous nationalism, in this post I want to come to the big question: how do we evaluate the European Union in the light of such biblical principles?
First let me rule something out. I do not believe that the EU is the woman wearing a crown of twelve stars (like the EU flag?) on her head in Rev 12:1. That is unquestionably the church, not some evil empire, and need not distract us. The descriptions of Babylon in Rev. 17-18 have attracted more attention. Is the EU the great whore of Babylon? The characters of the vision in Rev. 17 are difficult to identify, and across the centuries Babylon has variously been identified with the Roman Empire (by the early church), the Roman Catholic Church (by the Reformers), and more modern empires in Europe by more recent interpreters. I think we should read this vision in more broadly typical terms, with Babylon as the personification of evil and rebellion against God in all its manifestations. If you are a North Korean Christian, you won’t be much worried by the EU, and likewise Zimbabwean Christians may see other regimes reflected in Rev. 17-18. It’s good to ask yourself how Christians around the world read such visions before we rush to judgement.
However, when we turn to Genesis, the history worked out in Gen. 10-11 gives us material that is clear, much less disputed, and I think can be applied to the decision we face. The EU is not the whore of Babylon, but it does manifest some characteristics of the Babel project that should alarm us.
The EU is characterised by a Babel-like hubris. The autocrats of Babel said to each other, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.’ Rather than fulfil their creation mandate to disperse across the world and live as diverse nations in humility under God, they conspired together against God, building their grand projet. It was an insult to God, and it brought down the divine judgement that scattered them.
Huge claims are being made for the EU project. It claims to have kept the peace of Europe for over fifty years, to have spread peace and prosperity as though these things could never have happened without it, to have led to the downfall of communism, and so much more. To listen to its advocates, you are left thinking that without the EU, its member states would have been economic basket cases, incapable of running their own affairs. And the EU is much more than international cooperation between nations. The aim is integration at all costs, leaving nations behind and becoming one ever closer union. Le Grand Projet must not be allowed to fail.
If individual countries resist and object, their concerns get swept out of the way. When the European Constitution was voted down by France and the Netherlands in 2005, it had to be reworked as the Lisbon Treaty which somehow did not require referendum approval. Britain was promised a referendum, but Gordon Brown refused to give it to us after Lisbon. None of this should surprise us. Such projects cease being about consent and become centred on those in power. Babel was the first tyranny, and every empire with its grandiose plans has followed in its wake, determined to put man at the centre, until God brings it down. God has a way of making that happen. At Babel he came down and confused their language to prevent their project continuing. Plenty of other empires have followed since. ‘Look on my works, ye mighty and despair’, they say, but their empires come to ruins under God’s providential judgement.
Surely it’s a bit rough to liken the EU project to Osymandias, though, isn’t it? I don’t think so. The EU was designed to bring economic prosperity, but look at its achievements. It has advanced poverty in Africa by its trade barriers that penalise African farmers and make African nations poorer. The EU is not a free trade area for everyone, and Africa suffers at the hands of its protectionism. If that were not bad enough, look at how the Eurozone is beggaring the Mediterranean nations. Youth unemployment in Greece is 48%, 45% in Spain, 39% in Italy and 30% in Portugal. None of these countries can do the obvious thing and devalue their currency to rebalance their economies, because they have surrendered economic control to the EU Central Bank and are tied to the Eurozone’s austerity programme. If the big plus of the EU is economic progress, it has a strange record of achieving it. This is normal for empires. They build the wealth of the strong on the backs of the weak, and in the end they collapse.
But surely the EU has provided peace in Europe? That is the big claim that has been made in recent months. Eurocrats are good at doing this: finding something European that was not done by the EU and taking the credit for it. NATO has kept the peace in Europe, most of all because of the involvement of the United States. NATO preceded the EU, and includes many more states. But at one crucial moment when the EU had the power to act, in the early 1990s in Bosnia, it failed. Genocide happened on the EU’s watch. EU negotiators were powerless to hold back ethnic cleansing, and Brussels was incapable of acting decisively. It was only when NATO intervened that a peace deal was brokered. During the Kosovo conflict in 1998/9, the EU was powerless to act because its Commission was paralysed by a corruption scandal. Those who portray the EU as this great force for peace need to study its record of failure.
The EU has become an empire, and empires are remote from the people. Empires are about uniformity, and concentrating power at the centre. The EU has a control from the centre that no one understands. The European Commission, made up of failed politicians appointed by their national governments, cannot be dismissed by the European Parliament, only recalled by their national governments, as the Parliament discovered in 1998. The Council of the European Union and the Council of Ministers share legislative powers with the European Parliament, but ministers don’t deliberate for very long. Their four meetings generally take a weekend (a strange way of legislating), so power gets pushed back into the hands of unelected EU Commissioners. The Commission is very short on accountability, as someone said during the EU Commission resignation crisis in 1999, ‘It was becoming increasingly difficult to find anyone who had the slightest sense of responsibility.’ Finally, all EU law is subject to the European Court of Justice which can claim superior jurisdiction over the laws of member states and overrule national legislatures. No one I know can name their MEP, nor yet the UK EU Commissioner. But they know their MP, and they know a good deal about how Westminster works. Yes, in Britain we need to elect a Senate in place of the House of Lords, but we even know the names of not a few peers and they connect with the public. The EU’s institutions cannot connect with 500 million people, and nobody loves them except those they pay so well to run them.
Empires always end in tears, or to be more accurate, they end in war. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires led to the First World War, provoking nationalist violence because they ruled from the centre. Often it is not nationalism that provokes war, but empire itself. That is why I worry greatly about the present situation in Europe. My long-standing euro-enthusiasm finally died (it had been ailing for several years) when the Greeks had their 2015 referendum ignored and austerity imposed from the centre. My euro-enthusiasm had been struggling after Mario Monti (one of those resigning EU Commissioners from 1999) had been appointed (rather than elected) as Italian PM in 2011 at the behest of the EU Commission. These are anti-democratic measures that are storing up political problems in these countries. People should remember that Greece and most of all Spain have had civil wars in the last century, and their democracy is fragile. Tyranny plays into the hands of extremists of both the right and left, and we are seeing both emerge more strongly from the shadows, which should make us shudder and remember.
This is a grim narrative, though no more outrageous than the ‘economic bomb’ David Cameron has talked about, or the ‘end of political civilisation’ that the EU president Donald Tusk warned about. Can I end with a better narrative? The Babel narrative ends with the nations being scattered across the face of the earth, to fulfil their calling of filling the earth, settling down into dignified nations, each with its own government, language and national conversation and culture. Nations don’t have to be sealed units, having no relationship with their neighbours. Of course there are loads of things we do together as nations in the world. In the United Nations (clue’s in the title) each nation’s integrity is respected, and sterling work is done by UNESCO, UNHCR and the WHO – nations working together to fight poverty and disease, protect refugees, and respect threatened cultures on the margins of life. The Commonwealth is an informal family of nations where Britain would never dare to try exerting any imperial power, and it works! We have peaceful relationships with democracies across the world, so long as each nation is allowed to run its own affairs peacefully.
Is this not what God intended for nations in a sinful world? I believe that voting for Brexit is not small-minded and unloving, driven by racial prejudice. It is driven by the realisation that the EU is already a Babel in decline, while the world is a world of nations as God intended. A vote to leave is a vote to return to the model that God intended in a fallen world.
[26/06/16 Please note, these are my own personal views, and do not as such represent the views of Grace Baptist Mission.]