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Reform Magazine | May 23, 2024

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A good question: Should Britain leave the EU? - Reform Magazine

A good question: Should Britain leave the EU?

One question, four answers

‘Nothing is more important than our own sovereignty’

The question seems simple enough: do we believe that Britain should run Britain’s affairs? Be her own supreme lawmaker? Secure her own borders? Or do we believe that we should instead have to accept EU law as supreme and let a collection of foreign states decide who comes here, whom we may expel, how we run our labour market and whether laws passed by our own parliament should or should not be valid?

I served as a minister in Her Majesty’s Government throughout the entire Major administration, responsible at various times for social security, pensions, employment, prisons and immigration. Whichever post I was in, the story was always the same: inordinate amounts of time being spent trying to ward off unwanted and unwarranted EU intervention in British affairs. Every time we passed a piece of legislation we had to prove it was compatible with EU law.

I left government with the clear understanding that we were a subordinate parliament and I want future generations of Britons to be in charge of their own law and decision making and to do what is best for Britain.

Against that, any short-term difficulties pale into insignificance. This is a decision for the long term and we are unlikely to have the opportunity to take it again. We didn’t give up fighting the Second World War at Dunkirk because we knew the freedom of future generations was too important, and, somewhat less dramatically, we must not be scared into giving up now just because we fear change. Indeed, if those taking Brexit forward are sufficiently determined then there need be much less disruption than is currently forecast by the Scare Brigade.

We are the single largest importer of EU goods; we have an independent nuclear deterrent; we have GCHQ and a special relationship with the United States. Wherever we look, whether at security, intelligence, economic performance or anything else, the lesson is always the same: we are far too important to the EU for it to want to alienate us in the future. We will get the trade deals but we will no longer have the meddling.

Business is split. Politicians are split. Academics are split. Neither side is unanimously supported so we each have a duty to decide what is the most important issue on which to vote and I cannot see that anything is more important than our own sovereignty and independence.

Ann Widdecombe was MP for Maidstone from 1987 to 2010. She is president of the pro-Brexit campaign group Christians for Britain


martin_hennigerMARTIN HENNIGER
‘The EU is a way to live reconciliation’

The European Union is far from perfect. Also, Britain is a little different from other countries in Europe – something I enjoyed when as a German I spent six years serving as a minister of the United Reformed Church. Often I was told about the great times of the British Empire which gave Britain a view on the world which was different to that of continental Europe.

I also made friends. One of them, a 100-year-old retired post office master had fought in the battle of the Somme, as did the grandfather of my colleague in our twin church. My own grandfather fought in that battle, too, on the other side. John Waller, then Moderator of the URC’s West Midlands Synod, said at my induction: “During two world wars the people of Germany and Britain had been encouraged to hate one another…. Yet, out of the ashes has come repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and friendship…. The message of reconciliation is not something vague and spiritual, it is precise and direct and powerful. And that makes it dangerous. For many of us are used to being unreconciled and are not sure that we want to change.”

The European Union has the same roots as the covenant between the URC and my Palatinate Church. It is a very practical way to live reconciliation. By leaving the EU Britain will signal to other nations: We regard the price for political and economic cooperation as too high. We no longer see it as an achievement, that after two dreadful wars we have taken many small steps of reconciliation, and that differences of interest are now overcome by compromise and negotiations, even if they are tedious. To me it is a mystery and a cause for deep sadness, that as Europeans we tend to hide what we learnt from the past and are not willing to present the EU, imperfect as it may be, as an example for solving conflict peacefully.

Europe is good not just for trade and industry; it is also good to be a European citizen. What a wealth of experience young people get by doing a year of voluntary work in Leeds followed by a bachelor’s degree in Heidelberg and a master’s in Vilnius – much of it supported by the EU’s Erasmus Programme. I know from many young people how good it is to learn about the varieties within our common European heritage.

Britain, like Germany and the other countries of the EU, is now a secular society. But underneath lay the values of a Christian Europe tested and reshaped by the age of enlightenment – a unique combination of faith and reason which forms our understanding of civil rights, society, religion and political processes.

So, does Britain really wish to leave the EU, devaluing the peace former generations worked so hard for and other nations are longing for? Deprive our young people of life-shaping experiences? Jeopardise a long term common project for the sake of short term self interest? Show the world that Britain’s values are different to those of other European nations? I can’t believe it.

Martin Henninger is a pastor for the Church of the Palatinate in Germany


‘Does the EU enhance or hinder 
our ability to love our neighbour?’

Like many, I find myself struggling to make much sense of the wall-to-wall EU referendum coverage. Already, campaigns are priming millions of undecided voters with statistics and nightmare scenarios designed to cajole them into voting “leave” or “remain” come 23 June. So what are the possible ways to go about answering this seemingly impossible question?

One plausible way of making a decision might be to consider: What has the EU ever done for me? Those whose work involves lots of travel throughout Europe might feel that the free movement that EU membership brings makes their life much easier; others that this free movement is to blame for the increasing pressure on resources in their area and threatens community cohesion. People’s life experience, their concerns and hopes will shape their decision, making it difficult to pronounce a right or wrong answer either way.

Another way of answering this question is to imagine what life in Britain might be like after Brexit – and herein lies the key challenge voters face. While we are now familiar with the advantages and disadvantages of EU membership, a post-Brexit Britain is an unknown. For example, it is impossible to know how long exit negotiations might take – estimates range from two to ten years. But is fear of the unknown a compelling case against Brexit?

As a Christian, I think there are other questions that are helpful in deciding how to vote. These questions focus on the relationships that Britain’s membership of the EU facilitates. The Gospel instructs us that after loving God, our second greatest commandment is “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Our relationship with God and our human relationships are intimately related, and express themselves both socially and politically.

Many of the issues being explored in the referendum – the single market, the environment, migration – directly impact upon the ways in which we relate to each other, as individuals but also as communities, churches and countries. So perhaps the real question we need to consider between now and June is: To what extent does the European Union enhance or hinder our ability to love our neighbour, and in doing so, our God?

This question encourages us to reflect on who we think of as our neighbour. Are they those in our local communities, or in the wider world? It also encourages us to think about whether or not the relationships enabled by the EU’s political and economic structures are helpful in fulfilling our duty towards our neighbours.

The EU referendum is an opportunity to explore these questions in a unique way. In view of this, as we speak to friends and family about the referendum, it’s important to bear in mind the primacy of the Kingdom of God, irrespective of which way we each choose to vote.

Grace Pengelly served the United Reformed Church as Secretary for Church and Society. She contributed to “Think, Pray, Vote”, an EU referendum resource, which was published online at


ben_ryanBEN RYAN
‘The EU can be reformed to recapture its moral mission’

Britain shouldn’t leave the EU – not so long as the EU can be reformed to embody the moral mission of its founders. Reform in this case means more than simply change, it is a call to recapture the vision of the early European project.

That early vision was for Europe to be an essentially moral project. Economics, while certainly important, was only a tool in the service of a higher end. This was made quite explicit in a speech by the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1952: “The political goal, the political meaning of the European Coal and Steel Community [the starting point for what became the EU] is infinitely larger than its economic purpose.”

The political meaning he had in mind was a vision grounded in Catholic social teaching, owing more to the Church than it did to Keynesian economics. The key principles were peace, solidarity, subsidiarity (a term lifted from a Papal encyclical) and the amelioration of the working and living conditions of citizens. If that sounds unlikely, read the treaties of Paris (1951) and Rome (1957). They are explicit in their moral commitment to these principles.

The problem is that over time those principles have become compromised and muted. Solidarity, be it in how austerity politics have been imposed on some European nations (45% of Greek pensioners now live below the poverty line and there is 48% youth unemployment), or in the ineffectual response to the refugee crisis, has taken a back seat to other concerns. Most significantly, a new economic obsession has been allowed to dominate the debate.

Peace has been successful within the EU’s borders, but not intervening in Bosnia or Kosovo must mark as a moral failure. Subsidiarity, meanwhile, is in crisis as a technocratic elite have moved increasingly beyond their democratic mandate. The steamrollering of Greek democracy is only the latest such example.

All this might leave you with the impression that the EU has failed, and it is time the UK ditched it. Yet, there is a real need in global politics for an organisation actively committed to a moral mission. The European project had such a commitment in its origins – and those principles are still there. It will take political courage and popular will to realise them again – to make the EU an organisation whose primary purpose is to be a moral, perhaps even spiritual project. It would be a tragedy to give up on that dream for the sake of a debate which has been wrongly dominated by talk of little more than rival economic calculations.

Ben Ryan is a researcher at Theos, the Christian thinktank, and author of A Soul for the Union (Theos, 2016, £5/free download from


This is an extract from the May 2016 edition of Reform.

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