Brexit – A schism for Europe


The curtain is closed while all questions remain open” – this Bertolt Brecht quote aptly sums up the situation after the UK’s referendum on 23 June.

By a narrow margin of 51.9% the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. With a turnout of 72% of the electorate, this corresponds to 37% of all those eligible to vote, with a majority of youthful British voters choosing to remain in the EU. These figures alone speak volumes about the problems associated with the referendum. Maybe an early general election with a clear positioning of the parties on ‘Brexit’ might still offer a solution.

In the weeks running up to the referendum, the campaign increasingly displayed all the characteristics of a poorly scripted political drama. The Eurosceptic Leave campaigners used targeted lies and stirred up populist hatred of refugees and migrants. Thus, against better judgement, it was claimed that the UK was handing over £350 million per week to Brussels, a sum which, if Brexit happened, would be invested in the British National Health Service. The UKIP leader Nigel Farage (who has since resigned) admitted on the day following the referendum that this message had been “a mistake”. A further claim was that in the foreseeable future Turkey would become an EU Member State, hence the UK would be flooded by an incoming tide of Turkish immigrants.

Another aspect that perfectly fits the metaphor of a bad political drama was the hasty exit from the stage of the main protagonists once the result had been declared. This referendum left a divided nation in its wake: north vs. south, young vs. old, poor vs. rich. And trust, the most important asset in politics, was trashed.

Much of the dramatic goings on associated with Brexit stands in stark contrast to the christian understanding that politics have to serve the common good. That kind of politics was represented by Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered on the street by a mentally ill perpetrator during the week before the referendum. Jo Cox had become a politician in order to serve other people. She had worked for ten years for the charity Oxfam, which is committed to making the world a fairer place. She had worked tirelessly for refugees and for the UK’s membership of the EU.

Immediately after his wife’s death, Brendan Cox still had the strength to utter these wonderful words: “She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now: one, that our precious children are bathed in love and, two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion; it is poisonous.”

Before the referendum, the campaigning from both Catholic and Anglican sides had been clearly in favour of the UK remaining in the EU. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, referred to the long tradition in Christendom and the Catholic Church of preventing division and working for the whole. That was why the Catholic Church had comprehensively supported the project of European union. Patrick Daly, former General Secretary of COMECE, had also spoken out clearly in Europe Infos in favour of the UK remaining in the EU.

One tenet of Christian social philosophy is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Pope Francis has elevated this to one of his guiding principles. The greatest imaginable misfortune that can happen within church communities is a schism – when one group splits off from the other members of that same community. This is how one can describe the results of the UK referendum, if it will now really lead to the UK’s leaving the EU. Since the time of the Apostle Paul, the Church has been using the image of herself as a living body with numerous different limbs. In line with this image, schism means that a living limb is hacked off – leaving behind a wound and a weakened body. Of course this is where the analogy with Brexit ends. Even if separated from the “body” of the EU, the United Kingdom will still be a viable country. But the loss for both sides is obvious.

Over the course of the history of the Church, it has been possible to heal schisms. But this has required protracted negotiations, rapprochement and compromise. The hope remains that even this schism between the UK and the EU can be overcome.

Martin Maier SJ