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Leave Europe arguments betray cultural amnesia



Before the British referendum on the European Union, leaders of other European nations, as also President Obama and Australian ministers, have spoken strongly for the union.

Union Jack and EU flag divided by crackBut some commentators in the Australian media have welcomed the prospect of Britain's leaving. It may be helpful to consider their arguments in the light of the ideals that underlay European union.

The chief arguments for leaving appeal to the infringement on national sovereignty, the threat to a distinctive culture and the limitation of economic freedom that are entailed in Britain's ties to Europe.

In the critics' view the union has limited the capacity of the British to decide who comes into Britain as migrants, and has subjected British laws to review by the European framework of human rights. These limitations on sovereignty have weakened the cohesion of society and its Judaeo-Christian heritage.

The regulations governing trade within Europe, too, are a burden for business and stifle individual economic initiative. A Britain freed from its ties to Europe would regain pride, independence, a distinctive cultural homogeneity and economic freedom.

The roots of the European union lay in the experience of war. Such men as Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Jules Masson and Alcide de Gasperi were determined to ensure that there would be no third European War, and so to avoid the conditions that had led to war.

These included an understanding of national sovereignty that privileged competition over cooperation and disregarded human rights; an understanding of national cultures that was based on homogeneity of religion or race; and an understanding of the economy that cheerfully excluded many sections of the community from its benefits. Out of these conditions had arisen popular resentment, authoritarian and ideological regimes, and eventually war.

The post war European leaders at the time had seen these effects first hand. Many had been driven into exile. Adenauer and Gasperi had been imprisoned for their opposition to Hitler and Mussolini respectively. Schuman had been a member of the French Resistance.


"The case made in Australia for leaving the EU can be seen to argue for precisely the political conditions that the founders of the union wanted to remedy."


They were also linked by a deep knowledge of European history and by an informed respect for its Christian roots. Their opposition to a politics of exclusion and their principles of cooperation and peace built on unity resonated with the Catholic social tradition. They saw that antipathy, particularly between France and Germany, had to be overcome, and that cooperation and shared institutions were central for peace in Europe. The implementation of the Marshall Plan and the European Coal and Steel Community shortly after the end of the war were the fruits of this perception. These were perceived as the first steps towards closer economic and political union.

Against this background the case made in Australia for leaving the European Union can be seen to argue for precisely the political conditions that the founders of the union had feared and wanted to remedy. In the context of Brexit national sovereignty means the right to refuse any shared responsibility for people fleeing from tyranny and war. It also means the right to legislate without regard for human rights. The appeal to a Judaeo-Christian heritage acts as a justification for excluding migrants on the grounds of their Muslim origin and Islamic religion. A strong defence force and national pride mean the right to intervene unilaterally in military adventures as convenient. Economic freedom means preserving the conditions under which wealth can be amassed and retained by the few at the expense of the many.

The founders of the European Union would recognise these hoped-changes that a Brexit would bring. They had seen them before. They were precisely the conditions that contributed to the wars that they so feared: the xenophobia, disregard for human rights, chauvinism, military adventures entered by individual nations and competitive economic policies that alienated citizens and so bred authoritarian and ideologically inspired leaders. The arguments adduced against Brexit mark cultural amnesia, a return to a dangerous past.

This is not to deny, of course, that many features of the European Union do require change and development, particularly in the participation of citizens in its deliberations. Its major weakness has lain in the loss of its initial vision of political union and its seduction by economic ideology. The excess encouraged during the lead up to the GFC allowed the few to benefit at the expense of the common good. The response of the Union to the GFC allowed the beneficiaries in the financial industry to lock in and extend their wealth at the expense of the common good.

If that argument is correct, we might reasonably expect that the economic costs of a Brexit will be borne by those already excluded from the national table. The result would be deeper alienation. In the face of such a prospect the counsel and work of such serious human beings as Adenauer, Masson, Schuman and their fellow leaders merit close attention.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Brexit



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Existing comments

When the EU was first founded perhaps its founders forgot, or had never heard, of the words of one of the United States' founders, Thomas Jefferson. He wrote, "Our country is too large to have all its affairs directed by a single government. Public servants, at such a distance, and from under the eye of their constituents, must, from the circumstance of distance, be unable to administer and overlook all the details necessary for the good government of the citizens; and the same circumstance, by rendering detection impossible to their constituents, will invite the public agents to corruption, plunder, and waste." Thus Jefferson looked to a federated republic, where the rights of the individual states would not be subsumed by an all powerful central government. The constitution stipulated the federal government would have no powers that were not directly given to it by the states. Jefferson feared that the a central government would usurp all power to itself and become a bloated, sclerotic, enfeebled bureaucracy governed by unelected czars. The most pressing argument is for the citizens of United Kingdom to determine their own affairs. I do not see that the all the evils that Andrew Hamilton mentions must necessarily follow from a vote for a Brexit.

Viv Phillips | 21 June 2016  

A most eloquent and philosophical article, Andrew. I think the average Brit probably doesn't know who people like Adenauer and de Gasperi were. The British - especially the English - are extremely pragmatic by nature and Western European Catholic influenced Catholic political philosophy has almost no influence on them. Ditto with Viv Phillips' quoting an American Founding Father. Proponents of the 'Remain' case, like the highly commendable, totally honourable and sadly lamented Jo Cox, although eminently capable of understanding complex philosophical arguments, appeal more to a basic British decency and the fact that the problems that do exist with the EU can be sorted out. To leave, to them, would be to despair and throw in the towel. I must say I am with them.

Edward Fido | 21 June 2016  

If the EU is too centralised, who is to blame? It's not that continental Europeans don't know anything about federalism - think Germany. In fact one could argue that the British government has always been keen to centralise power at Westminster. It ignored the Scots when choosing a replacement for James II, it subsequently shut down both the Scottish and Irish parliaments to concentrate power, it was too slow to grant Home Rule to Ireland, and resisted devolution to Scotland. Had the UK actually got involved in shaping the 'idea' of Europe, the EU, and its predecessors, it would have been better able to influence its development. Instead, it held back, focussing instead on its 'special relationship' with the US. It's time that the Brits realised that they are geographically, economically, and culturally part of Europe, and did their bit in helping to make it better.

Ginger Meggs | 21 June 2016  

This is a trivial comment, but it looks to me as if the headline for this (typically thoughtful) article conveys the opposite meaning to what was intended - the movement for Britain to Exit is Brexit, I understand. Should it not read "Brexit arguments betray..."?

Matt Merian | 23 June 2016  

Hamilton's argument/position needs a clear cut enunciation - scholarly prose is useless unless it more clearly demonstrates the views of the author

frank hetherton | 23 June 2016  

Andrew, as an Aussie in a relatively isolated region we are also touched by the changes in European living standards. Looking at Britain in close proximity to Europe it seems a move for Brexit is a move backwards. The underlying motive is 'fear' of change; losing control of past living standards.The changes in European economic status ripple across to other countries too (including Australia). Opting out is not a solution, its more like closing ranks.

Trish Martin | 23 June 2016  

In three years training in Australia to become a surgeon I had done (flown solo) a mere 380 operations, mostly minor. Like most if not all Australian surgeons of those times I went to England to gain the experience and training necessary to allow me to practice safely on return to Australia. In 2 yrs 6 mths of operating in England I did 3,600 operations, mostly major, and can't recall having killed anyone. In England, surgeons from Sth Africa, New Zealand, Canada, India and Pakistan did a vast proportion of the surgery in England's National Health Hospital Service where they were welcome and accepted by the populace. Since European Union, members of the Commonwealth have been excluded from postgraduate training in the United Kingdom where there is an open door to surgeons from all over Europe with a very different ethic of practice who have displaced these Commonwealth citizens.. Australian surgeons now visit Europe for conferences and perhaps a week or so observing some surgery or go to the USA to train where they are exposed to surgery as a profit making business enterprise rather than a service to humanity as propounded in the British system. London is no longer the city I once lived in and loved. While the EU was an economic godsend, it was a cultural disaster for Britain and the Commonwealth. I can understand those who want to reclaim their Britain bearing in mind the economic disaster that could bring. The EU was also an economic disaster for the Commonwealth. However, it drove us to other trade partners with eventual economic success but steeped in corruption rather than ethics. I think we lost overall despite the money made. Those who vote to leave the EU will vote with their hearts and those who vote to stay with their greed or self-interest. Such is life.

john frawley | 23 June 2016  

Hi Andrew, A thoughtful essay indeed. I spent time in England teaching at a secondary school outside London about a decade ago. I soon became aware of the diversity of the cultural background of the students in my classes. I also was soon made aware of the class divisions in English society and the latent distrust of 'foreigners' by some mainly young English people . What really fascinated me most was the debate about what it meant to be British .It was absolutely raging at the time although it received no media interest here so most of your readers would not be aware of the underlying currents affecting the current debate in the UK. It amazed me then that a country, like Britain, centuries old, was having an identity crisis! The other issue was the constant media announcements from the Home Office about 'illegals' and the penalty if businesses employed them. I totally agree that today's politicians have incredible short memories concerning the very real wartime experiences, which framed the reasons the founding fathers had for forming the European Union. My gut feeling is that the UK will vote remain in the EU, but by a very narrow margin.

Gavin | 23 June 2016  

A rather simple way of looking at things perhaps: peace amongst men will never be achieved whilst some choose to remain apart. If this choice is based on perceived ' exclusive wisdom' then all the more reason for it to be shared. Isn't this the Gospel message?

margaret | 23 June 2016  

As someone whose family in the UK are pro Brexit and as someone currently reading Gitta Sereny`s magnificent biography of Albert Speer, it was hard not to note the eerie irony of reading this very morning (p.554 of the 1996 Picador edition) of Speer`s belief, as he awaited trial at Nuremberg, that `the only way towards a better and peaceful future, not only for Germany but for all Europe, was if Germany could eventually be part of an economic European entity.` We have short memories indeed. Nationalism in all its ugliness is a distinct ly possible fruit of a pro-Brexit vote. This will have repercussions for not just Europe but for the whole world. Was it Churchill who said `to `jaw-jaw` is always better than to `war-war`?

Fiona Winn | 23 June 2016  

As an aside, Australian politicians and media should be noticing the divisive effects of a plebiscite. Good things in theory, but opportunities for inflammatory forms of bias and hatred. If as promised the Conservatives want a plebiscite on marriage rights, are they willing to take responsibility for the bitterness generated? They know they can do it in parliament but you have to suspect their motives if they conduct a divisive exercise.

Michael D. Breen | 23 June 2016  

Thank you, Andrew, for this readable and concise reminder of the circumstances leading to the European Union in the beginning. (A pity the writer of the headline didn't read it). I hope the British people will make a decision for the union, and clearly enough to prevent further instability around the issue.

Joan Seymour | 23 June 2016  

I think John Frawley has oversimplified things by suggesting those who voted to stay in the EU did so out of 'greed and self-interest'. There are many, like the late Jo Cox, who felt that staying in a united Europe meant Britain had a greater influence for good, such as in regard to the current situation in Syria and the resultant refugee problem. The UKIP supported exiting as did many on the Extreme Right. Both stated their reasons quite clearly. I think there are decent and honourable people who voted either way for perfectly ethical reasons. The 'Catholic Herald' recently featured sensible articles from people on both sides. To be perfectly honest, no one had a crystal ball or a pack of cards to predict what would happen if Britain voted either way. Like John and others I am vitally interested in the preservation of those practices that ensure the basic decency and equality of British (and Australian) life. I hope, whichever way the vote went, Britain goes on to be that great, wonderful, decent nation it always has been at heart.

Edward Fido | 24 June 2016  

The EU is the closest supra-nation that European Christians now have to a Holy Roman Empire. Brexiters who are concerned about Europe's Judaeo-Christian heritage should give the EU another chance even if a Christian Europe is, for now, a dim possibility. A peaceful Orthodox Russia is still a concept waiting outside the fold even if most of Russia is in Asia. Turkey, unfortunately, is religiously incompatible even if part of it is in Europe although some arrangement might have been made if the country was still officially secular. British Christians have work to do, inside the tent.

Roy Chen Yee | 24 June 2016  

Britain, or more precisely, England and Wales, has voted to exit the EU. I can't account for how delighted I am as an Aussie, at this result. As a visceral free market supporter, I want to hug every north and central England Labor voter who voted this way, and for the same reason to respect those who might have voted the opposite way. That's the marvelous thing about true democracy, for all its limits: it makes you think about what the other side has to say.

HH | 25 June 2016  

It is also the English equivalent of National Socialism. And we all know where that ended. We seem to be living in that elusive parallel world; Boris Johnson as Britain's PM and Donald Trump as "presumptive" Commander-in-Chief? We might even see the return of Tony Abbott if Turnbull is returned with a reduced majority or (aghast!) hung parliament!

Alex Njoo | 25 June 2016  

One political and religious conservative (Roy) who sees in the EU a potential reincarnation of the Holy Roman Empire (dominated again by German princes?), and another (HH) who sees Brexit as a victory for free trade (when surely one of the drivers for Brexit was opposition to the free movement of labour, one of the basic tenets of a free market?)

Ginger Meggs | 27 June 2016  

G.M. 1. Sorry - poor expression of mine. I didn't mean to imply Brexit was per se a free market move. Theoretically, the UK could now impose very anti-market policies on itself. I just wanted to convey my pleasant surprise that despite our economic differences many rusted-on UK Labour voters and I share some deep intuitions about what might be good for a country. 2. Free trade and restricted immigration aren't necessarily incompatible ideas. Google Hoppe's "The Case for Free Trade and Restricted Immigration", which argues that immigration be invited and contractual rather than unrestricted.

HH | 29 June 2016  

The EU is a (supranational) federation, the UK a self-governing component. Why is there free trade within (national) federations such as Australia, Canada and the US and no complaints about the freedom of labour to move? Why aren't Tasmanians swamped by mainlanders, Sandgropers by Easterners, etc.? The answer must lie with free movement of economic peers between regions that are more or less economically equal. The Canadians have an interesting provision in their Charter of Rights and Freedoms which allows a province to take steps to protect its socially or economically disadvantaged residents when its employment rate falls below the national employment rate: 6.(2) Every citizen of Canada and every person who has the status of a permanent resident of Canada has the right a) to move to and take up residence in any province; and b) to pursue the gaining of a livelihood in any province. (3).... (4) Subsections (2) and (3) do not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration in a province of conditions of individuals in that province who are socially or economically disadvantaged if the rate of employment in that province is below the rate of employment in Canada."

Roy Chen Yee | 29 June 2016  

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