Remember the “What have the Romans ever done for us?” sketch in Monty Python’s Life of Brian?
At a (preposterously small) meeting of the Judaean People’s Front to plan a terrorist attack on Pontius Pilate, their leader Reg (John Cleese) launches into a troop-rallying anti-Roman tirade. Failing to spot his final question — “And what have they ever given us?” — as rhetorical, the Front’s members, like sheepish schoolchildren, suggest a few answers: Aqueducts? sanitation? irrigation? the roads? (“Yeah, well, obviously the roads,” says Reg in frustration.)
The list goes on: Wine, medicine, peace … It soon becomes so long that it’s hard to know what they object to.
What makes the sketch so funny is not just the incongruence of rhetoric and reality, but the accents — instantly recognizable for Brits as good-hearted, salt-of-the-earth, men-down-the-pub voices, sceptical about bold claims of any sort (which makes the notion they could be ideological terrorists even more absurd.)
Even back in 1979, when the film was made — seven years after Britain joined the then European Economic Community (EEC), a decision endorsed by a 67 percent majority in a 1975 referendum — you could still find that wry voice: “Foreigners, eh? What did they ever do for us?”
It is, roughly, the question being endlessly debated in the run-up to next Thursday’s referendum — the first since that one in 1975 — in which the British people will vote on whether the UK should remain in the European Union or leave.
The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world, and Europe’s largest state after Germany and France. Our decision will reverberate, not just across the 29-country union of European nations, but the whole word. History will be our judge.
Back in 1975, the question of what “they” had ever done for “us” was drowned in the idealism behind the idea of the UK pooling sovereignty with its European neighbors. Both Catholic and Anglican Churches were at the time energetically, and ecumenically, committed to keeping Britain in Europe, and mobilized their congregations to vote in favor.
Among Christians, only Ian Paisley’s Presbyterians — sensing a Catholic plot — resisted both the EEC and ecumenism.
It was a Catholic plot, of sorts. The main architects of the 1958 Treaty of Rome were Christian Democrats devoted to Catholic Social Teaching, who wanted trade to make European war impossible, solidarity to improve the lot of workers, and subsidiarity to strengthen civic institutions and grassroots democracy.
The British may not have ever bought into this intellectual architecture (“subsidiarity” was assumed to be obscure Brussels techno-speak,) but they could grasp that somewhere in the European common market swords could be exchanged for ploughshares.
Nations that traded might still quarrel, but they would have to negotiate. Peace and prosperity could be cemented by lowering tariffs, through trade and integration with our neighbors and economic partners.
How different it is now, on the eve of the second referendum. The European project seems tired, sclerotic, and bureaucratic, and its critics are the ones with the ideals. The Leave campaign, with its talk of taking back control of our sovereignty and our borders, free to engage with the rest of the world, not just Europe, has captured the imagination.
Now, it seems, everyone is asking: “Well, what did they ever do for us?”
Church leaders have joined in the criticism, even when they have urged the UK to remain. Pope Francis has not held back in his lacerating descriptions in Strasbourg of the EU as out of touch, distant from both its founding ideals and the peoples of its member states. He even began his recent Charlemagne prize speech by asking what had happened to Europe.
His remedy, of course, was not the break-up of the EU but a return to its roots; Rome remains deeply committed to the project, as the Vatican’s (English) foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, has made clear.
Yet while individually the leading Catholic and Anglican bishops in the UK — the former and current archbishops of Westminster and Canterbury — have hesitantly made their own decision to vote Remain, corporately they have sat on the fence, conscious of their divided congregations.
“In no sense do I have some divine hotline to the right answer,” stressed Archbishop Justin Welby, explaining his decision. “We each have to make up our own minds.”
Having framed what they consider the criteria — this is about much more than economics; it’s about the human person — the Catholic bishops of England and Wales acknowledge “the justifiable concerns that many people have in relation to the European Union, its institutions and the implications of increasing integration” and call for careful discernment of a historic decision.
What changed between 1975 and 2016?
Hit by a headwind of sluggish growth, joblessness and the challenge of millions of displaced Arabs at its borders, the EU has shown itself incompetent, fractious and disunited. Yet its failures are not only the result of external shocks such as the 2008 crisis and the migration emergency, but run deeper, to what Adrian Pabst in a essay calls the “original sin” of Europe, namely the primacy of the economic and the political over the social.
This technocratic paradigm, as Pope Francis describes the mentality in Laudato Si, became dominant following the creation in the early 1990s of the single market, which attempted to create within the territory of many states what is normally done within one.
Rather than implement the social Catholic vision of strong intermediate institutions and localism, a “market-state” came into being, one that fuses Anglo-Saxon free-market economics with continental bureaucratic statism. Subsidiarity became an engine of centralization, when it was supposed to be a device for devolving power to people.
Minimal harmonization for the purpose of trade was replaced by a dirigiste drive for uniformity. And rather than distribute wealth, the EU has exacerbated the gap between the haves and have-nots. As Pabst puts it, the EU market-state “lacks political direction, economic vitality, social cohesion and civic consent.”
The reality is that, as was pointed out in a 2004 report by a group of European statesman and intellectuals, economic growth cannot of itself produce political unity, nor market forces of themselves lead to solidarity. To function as a viable and vital polity, said the authors of ”The Spiritual and Cultural Dimension of Europe”, the EU needs “a firmer foundation,” one that is based on the “cultural glue” that binds Europeans, and that expresses European civil society.
The demos, in short, lacked an ethos.
In its absence, it is inevitable that, at a time of crisis, “What did Brussels ever do for us?” is becoming the common refrain, not just in the UK but across Europe, where nationalist parties are on the rise, appealing to popular disillusionment with elites and foreigners which the EU represents.
But in the UK there is an extra, distancing element: our constant rejection of the centralist, federalizing direction of the EU.
Indeed, our Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, is making the case for staying in on the grounds that we get the good bits of membership (access to the world’s largest free-trade zone, from which we have benefited massively) while not being part of the bad bits (the Eurozone, the Schengen common border, and the drive towards further political integration.)
We should stay in, in other words, because we are not too far in. It is hardly a case that makes the heart sing.
Then there is our island pathology, the myth of British sovereignty as a Protestant bulwark against the attempt of Catholic foreigners — via the Armada and Guy Fawkes — to reverse the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Thomas Cromwell’s idea of Britain as an empire — meaning sovereign, sufficient unto itself — is re-emerging in the Leave campaign’s current talk of “taking back control” and “restoring our sovereignty”.
Yet almost anything Britain has achieved in the world is as a result of pooling sovereignty. The UK cannot tackle the big problems of today—terrorism, climate change, tax evasion, cyber-crime—without co-operating, and compromising. No serious country in the world “has control”.
The “control” narrative, however, generates a feeling of strength and power — above all in the one area where Britons feel out of control: immigration. Released from the European single market, the Leave campaign claims, Britain can decide who comes in and who goes out by means of a Canadian or Australian points system.
Yet there are still more non-EU migrants to the UK than EU ones, and Britain will continue to need as many migrants as it now takes if it is to remain a competitive, dynamic economy. The concern about immigration levels, and sometimes the xenophobia, released by this referendum debate will not go back into its box after a Brexit, and is likely to be exacerbated.
How are UK Catholics — there are over a million of us at church each Sunday, and five million baptized — going to vote on June 23?
Convinced that the EU has betrayed its founding social-Catholic ideals, many will opt to Leave; others, convinced of the need to reform the EU, renewing it from its social-Catholic roots, will want to Remain.
There is a left-wing Leave Catholic argument that attacks Brussels for being in hock to corporations and banks, imposing austerity on the poor of Europe; and there is a right-wing Leave Catholic argument that sees Brussels as bossy, bureaucratic, and interfering.
The conservative Catholic Remain argument is all about the benefits of the freedom of goods and people, bringing prosperity; left-wing Catholic Remainers point to what can be achieved by pooling sovereignty in protecting the rights of workers and minorities, or welcoming forced migrants and refugees.
But whatever their decision, Catholics know better than other voters that “What did Brussels ever do for us?” is not the right question, not just because it’s unanswerable (are we the world’s fifth largest economy because of, or in spite of, the EU?) but mostly because the point of the EU is not, ultimately, about acqueducts and wine and roads, important as these are.
The question must be, “Is the EU, either now, or in the future, a framework for achieving what we value — or an immovable obstacle?”
It’s not really a Reg sort of question, but it’s the only one Catholics should be asking.
Austen Ivereigh is coordinator and co-founder of Catholic Voices in the UK. This article first appeared on its website.