[26/06/16 Please note, these are my own personal views, and do not as such represent the views of Grace Baptist Mission.]
There have been a number of posts in recent days saying that the best motivation for voting #Remain on Thursday is to see the work of the gospel advance in Europe. I am startled that almost all those Christian Remainers blogging have made this highly pragmatic argument the deal-breaker in making their decision. Will Brexit be bad for mission in Europe? Well, let’s think carefully here.
The mission agency I work for has been helping support missionaries in Europe for 50 years. We sent missionaries into Spain when Franco was in power, into Belgium and France before we entered the EEC (as it was then) and long before free movement was introduced. We sent missionaries into Austria and Latvia a decade before either of those countries joined the EU. No one had their visas refused. One missionary did get arrested, but that was in Franco’s Spain in the early 1970s. We thought it was normal for missionaries to have to apply to get a visa before entering, as they do in Peru, Kenya and the Philippines. Governments have the right to control their immigration, and as Christians we play by the rules.
Then along came free movement in the EU under the Maastricht Treaty, and UK missionaries were spared the tedium of the visa queue. But don’t think that that means you are free from all bureaucracy. In France, missionaries needed to get a Carte de Sejours into the late 1990s, and if today you want to serve in Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria or Romania for more than 90 days, you need a residency permit. Indeed, even though Greece is an EU country and bound by the ECHR, it does not issue missionary visas to non-EU nationals such as Americans or Canadians. They have to focus on e.g. relief work or teaching English if they want to gain access. Other EU countries such as France or Spain issue missionary visas to non-EU citizens on a regular basis. So, would the loss of free movement of people after leaving the EU prohibit UK missionaries from serving in Europe? I cannot see that it would. What is more, if mission is going to make progress across Europe, we need thousands of gospel workers from all over the world to come and serve alongside us in the most spiritually barren part of the world. They will never have rights of free movement, but we need their help, and can tell them that they can apply to get a missionary visa in almost all European countries. One missionary we support in Europe is a non-UK-national, so he has to get his visa. Another has to get a visa because she works in a non-EU country in Europe. We are not worried about either of them getting access to do their work.
So why the big panic about the work of the gospel being threatened in Europe if we leave the EU? I have even had close friends say to me, ‘Yes, but the EU will be so annoyed with us that we have left that they will chuck out the missionaries that are there and shut the door. They’ll be really vindictive.’ Really? I struggle to comprehend this argument. France has 180,000 nationals living in the UK, and the UK has 200,000 living in France. Are we really expecting them all to be sent to Calais with their belongings on their roofrack on Friday? I don’t think it is a valid argument. Normal relations between modern nation-states will resume, and we will be back where we were in 1973, and still doing the work of the gospel across Europe.
In a recent post, Robert Strivens deals with this issue and raises an additional point which is entirely fair comment. London Theological Seminary, like many small Bible colleges that do not offer degree courses, has had real problems with getting visas for non-EU students coming to study. It has been common for UK Immigration to refuse some visas. Up to now the issue has not arisen for EU citizens because they have free movement, but if we leave the EU they could fall foul of the same rules, dependent on what arrangements are made in a post-Brexit relationship with the EU. This is a problem for EMF’s School of Biblical Studies and will be for other institutions as well. But the problem here is not the EU, it is Britain’s broken immigration system. This is something that the UK Government will have the power to change. We can, and should lobby our MPs on this issue and see that we get action. My MP is a Christian and I am confident would take up this issue for us with those in power. We can’t blame the EU for the policies of the UK government, but the good news is that we can lobby our own government and get justice for those we really do want to come and study here.
So, is the threat of such a problem the deal-breaker argument that decides how you vote on Thursday? (In fairness, Robert Strivens says it should not be) Or should you be guided as a Christian by biblical principles rather than purely pragmatic ones? It’s your call (a liberating thing to say), but please don’t make a once in a lifetime decision based purely on a short-term pragmatic issue with visas.
But would voting Leave be saying that we hate Europe and have no heart for it, and have become little Englanders? Not at all. Our argument is with the EU, not with Europe. As Daniel Hannan MEP has pointed out, ‘Saying “I support the EU because I love Europe” is like saying “I support FIFA because I love football.” The EU is not Europe. It is simply a growing empire that would like to control Europe if it could. If we vote to leave, I believe this will precipitate a process whereby other countries will have the courage to follow us. The Dutch are considering it, and a candidate running for the Gaullists in France is promising them an EU referendum. The Mediterranean nations would love to leave. But none of us by leaving would stop being European.
Christians voting Leave on Thursday will not cease to have a passion to see the gospel advance across our continent. We want to see a new reformation sweep across our continent, bringing millions to faith and thereby cutting to the roots of the endemic corruption that grows like a canker in so many nations. The EU doesn’t somehow do mission for us. With or without it, the work of mission, the planting of churches, the evangelising of students, the work among the homeless and refugees, the training of pastors and the work of public engagement with the gospel, will all continue across Europe.
Think very carefully before you vote on Thursday. The issues are much bigger than these short-term concerns.