Since the victory cries of the #TakeBackControl campaign, our nation as been wrestling with an explanation for this most unexpected turn of events.
We have seen a range of competing explanations being offered in order to attempt to explain the outcome which surprised the world. Among the plethora of suggestions I have heard, the most common are: the concern about uncontrollable borders; the loss of national sovereignty; and certain amount of frustration about rules and regulations which don’t seem to sit well alongside a British sense of liberty.
These concerns appear, at least in my mind, to be encapsulated under the legitimate banner of a concern about some kind of a “democratic deficit” in Europe – a lack of constitutional democracy that gives EU constituents the confidence that the laws which govern them are explicitly based upon a democratic mandate of the people.
Much has been written on the democratic attributes of the European Union. I don’t consider it particularly controversial to suggest that it is relatively clear that the European Commission – the executive and legislative nucleus of the European Union – lacks, at least the full expression of, that palpable attribute of being ‘of the people and for the people’ which is seen in the worlds oldest and most successful democratic instututions. And there is no doubt that the decision of Britain to leave this union of nations in May 2016, is a reflection of its discontent about its lack of democratic attributes.
I’d like to take us on a little journey through the modern history of Europe, and explore quite how we ended up where we are today.
The founders of the European Coal and Steel Community, the organisation which later morphed into the European Economic Community and then the European Union, had a distinctly Christian worldview. Italy’s Alcide de Gasperi, West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer, France’s Robert Schumann – men with a primarily Catholic moral framework – were ashamed at the willfull destruction which Europe had brought upon itself during the two world wars.
The economic partnership was their solution. It was a way to confront aggressive nationalism and tie together the Germans and the French to disincentivise conflict, and to ensure that the calamities which broke out in Europe between 1939 and 1945 would never surface again.
And it worked. Based upon the the success of this partnership in achieving that limited original aim, it was assumed by the parties concerned that it would represent the embryonic stage of a new political partnership, characterised by gradual integration and cultural harmonisation. It was a pragmatic solution, designed to mitigate the capacity for the human condition (which, particularly from their historical perspective, was a poingnant and inescapable reality) to again manifest its evil on the scale seen in Nazi Germany.
But in the forming of the institutions of this new political union and the democratic principles which undergirded it, a wager had been laid unawares. The founders, without being fully aware of the assumptions they had made, relied on the hope that the Christian moral virtue in European culture would be sustained, allowing it to maintain democratic pluralism in a “union” of sovereign states, and that national distinctiveness would be respected.
In other words, they had not fully appreciated how the lack of certain foundational beliefs combined with man’s unherent untrustworthiness with power, would exploit the flaws in these innovative European political institutions and set it on a collision course with the people.
Those virtues, which had been present for a time, included the Christian socio-political ethic of democratic subsidiarity: the principle that decisions should be made as close as possible to the people who they affect; and of limited government.
These are principles who’s assumptions are uniquely rooted in the biblical understanding of the human capacity for evil. They are a check against the tendency for states to centralise power. The antidode to totalitarian rule, and a way of slowing down the vice of revolutionary self-serving political leaders.
With the collapse of religion in Europe, by the late 1980’s European commitment to subsidiarity and limited government had imploded along with it.
The chasm, once filled with biblical wisdom and Christian other-centredness, was filled by an inward and self-interested secularism. In Europe, this was manifested by a jerk towards a dreary anti-pluralist conceptualisation of democracy in which unaccountable bureaucrats impressed upon Europe an ideological ‘Culture of Self’ – the secular manifestation of Christian personalism.
Its political corollary: a “democratic deficit”.
Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde is a former judge on Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court and Professor Emeritus at the University of Freiburg. In the 1970s, Böckenförde highlighted a dilemma faced by the liberal-democratic state. He wrote that:
The liberal, secularized state lives by prerequisites which it cannot guarantee itself. This is the great adventure it has undertaken for freedom’s sake. As a liberal state it can only endure if the freedom it bestows on its citizens takes some regulation from the interior, both from a moral substance of the individuals and a certain homogeneity of society at large. On the other hand, it cannot by itself procure these interior forces of regulation, that is not with its own means such as legal compulsion and authoritative decree. Doing so, it would surrender its liberal character and fall back, in a secular manner, into the claim of totality it once led the way out of, back then in the confessional civil wars.
— Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, Staat, Gesellschaft, Freiheit. 1976, S. 60.
In other words, cultural assumptions about virtue necessarily rest on certain moral-cultural premises which cannot generate themselves.
Joseph Ratzinger, another European intellecual, would scoff at the understatement of a democratic deficit. He called the state of Böckenförde’s description the “dictatorship of relativism”, and it is on full display in Brussles.
When we killed God in favour of secular individualism in Europe, we thought we were entering a new phase of political wisdom and opportunity. We may actually have, almost irreparably, cut off the very prerequisites in which a happy and prosperous society is built upon.
More than #TakeBackControl, we need to start looking for some kind end to the great adventure which, for freedoms sake, our state has undertaken.