Approaching the referendum decision: How do we relate to our neighbours?

This blog is contributed by Peter Hall, a self-employed teacher of English as a foreign language, who believes in looking for creative ways to make things better and better ways of being creative.

Arguments for justice, respect and diversity have prevailed at key moments of world history, through courageous leadership, sustained campaigning, the imagining of a better world and the resolve to act.

These arguments prevailed in the repeal of the slave trade, in the civil war in the United States, in the campaign against apartheid in South Africa and in the successful campaign for a peaceful political settlement in Northern Ireland.

The fear, hostility and segregation that was eventually resisted can be traced back to popular and political representations of racial differences. From a Christian point of view, and a humanitarian one, all arguments which are based on the belief that one race or ethnic group is superior to another are plainly wrong.

The European Union was founded specifically to make sure that nationalism could no longer tear Europe apart as it had in two disastrous wars, with the loss of 50 million European lives. Besides the union of currencies and markets, as Sir Fred Catherwood puts it, this internationalism speaks of protection, freedom and inter-racialism.

I’m writing as someone who has travelled a reasonable amount around Eastern Europe, taught English as a foreign language to various EU nationals and co-habited (as a host and as a guest) with various EU nationals. I’ve spent 13 years working in taxation and 15 years in the health sector, working with and for EU nationals.

I confess I am a fairly convinced Remain supporter. I like Europeans. Some of my best friends are Europeans. In fact I am a European. I’m even married to one. However, having said this, I want to look again at the principles that shape this opinion.


I believe that the concept of ‘Britishness’ is something that I should hold lightly. My Christian world view is that unity is more important that geography or culture, and that my spiritual allegiance to Jesus Christ weakens my sense of nationalism and increases my desire to live at peace with everyone – not retreat behind a wall for safety.

Responding to the public debate

Resist the negative climate

However strongly we feel about staying in or voting out, there’s a case to be made for actively resisting the negative climate that is part of the referendum debate. There is a bigger picture of working for positive discussion and resolution during and after the vote.

The negativity of the Out campaign, often even that spoken with a Christian voice, has sometimes been distressing. I do not hear the voice of sympathy for the EU citizen. The message is that you are not ‘one of us’. The Christian precept ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ stands in contrast to this message.

See the bigger picture

The majority of the UK and EU population will not wake up hungry and sick. We all may be under economic pressures of varying severity but in the EU this is less likely to be a matter of life and death than in other parts of the world. For me the bigger issue is that this voice on behalf of the hungry seems muted at the moment as we focus on our narrow problems.

How is this voice that defends the poor and marginalised best heard? I believe it is within the EU – through the creation of movements across Europe that will exert pressure on governments and EU policy-makers. Others may say that we can be more effective as a separate voice of conscience outside the EU that speaks to those within.

Scrutinise media coverage

The immigration issue is starting to dominate public debate and colour representation about the UK’s relationship with the EU. Sue Bird, a policy coordinator at the European Commission, has encouraged us to remember what the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has said on this subject: ‘All human beings are of absolutely equal and infinite value and the language we use must reflect the value of the human being and not treat immigration as a deep menace.’ The archbishop’s concern was about the potential in underlying racial overtones to spark a heated debate that risked getting out of hand.

There is fear about the impetus towards a European super state, but do we believe that a ‘super state’ is more acceptable to the French or the Dutch than it is to us? Bulgaria is not Germany. Italy is not Spain. England is not Scotland. The EU (or the UK for that matter), based on what I have seen in my travels, does not destroy diversity. It allows a space where that diversity is protected and preserved in ways that countries couldn’t afford to do on their own. The European City of Culture initiative is one example (which Glasgow and Liverpool have benefited greatly from). Even the Cornish pasty has its status protected by the European Commission.

An uncertain future

The feelings of despair and powerlessness, and real economic pain, expressed by many supporting the Out campaign are real. How are we to address the needs of the oppressed within this country? When people at the poorer end of the economic scale are competing for the same limited territory, problems are easily expressed in ethnic terms and by a rejection of all authority figures. We should feel the pain behind the expression before we judge it, or perhaps not judge at all. The question is, what we are going to do about it? It also doesn’t mean we have to accept the analysis.

Where the EU has mismanaged, it is horrendously painful. Surely part of the shared pain appropriate to the EU is debt relief by Germany for Greece. Whether In or Out, the economic future is uncertain. While I believe economic security is managed better together, there are no guarantees. But I don’t want to be the one who, as the party comes towards an end, sees the mess, makes polite excuses and leaves early so I’m not there at the end to help clear up.

Democracy is not a holy institution. It’s pretty bad in many ways, but it’s currently the best option we have. Ironically it’s very much like the EU. Like democracy, the EU sometimes stops people from doing what is right. But it also usually stops some very bad people from doing some very bad things, and I’d like it to remain so.

Posted on Categories Government & politics