THE BLOG

The EU Needs Its Soul Back

25/01/2016 10:17 GMT | Updated 24/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Haven't we all been here before? One side wants to leave the Union, promising a world of freedom from interfering foreigners and a bright economic future all on our own. The other berates the public with dire threats that life outside the Union will rob us all of our jobs and leave the country destitute and alone. If you think the debate over the EU sounds familiar to all the same fuss we had over Scotland in 2014 you're not wrong.

Then, of course, the Union survived (for now) albeit by a narrow margin. Throughout that debate the pro-Union side constantly made the same mistake; they tried to scare the opposition into submission. Almost every pro-Union speaker warned that Scotland would be poorer and that citizens would feel the consequences. Technical calculations were produced that demonstrated all the financial costs.

No doubt many were convinced. Ultimately though this is a pretty weak basis for unity. People do not feel loyalty for the sake of being a bit better off, especially during an economic crisis when those benefits are hard to see anyway. Real longevity needs a Union that matters to people even when economic times are tough. The unionists in Scotland never made a real case for identity and loyalty beyond basic economic calculations, and they just about got away with it.

The EU 'In' campaign might not be so lucky, with recent polls showing a majority of the British electorate now favouring leaving the EU. Once again the 'In' campaign has fallen back on fear mongering and economics to save the day. Business leader after business leader will be wheeled out to repeat the narrative that leaving the UK will kill jobs and damage British economic performance. The 'In' campaign website features a video from Karen Brady (Tory peer, Apprentice minion to Alan Sugar) saying the same thing and lots of scary stats about Britain's reliance on EU trade.

Even if it's all true, it's still a weak case. We have had the Eurocrisis for seven years. 45% of Greece's 2.5 million pensioners now live on incomes of less than €665 a month - below the poverty line defined by the EU. Youth unemployment in Greece and Spain is at around 47%, and worryingly high in several other states. If the EU's only raison d'être is to make us all richer it is not hard to see why Eurosceptics are dominating the debate.

It is frustrating to see the debate fall out this way, with Eurosceptics and Europhiles casting around stats and figures and obsessing over economic predictions. Is this really all it is? Is there nothing more to say? David Cameron in Davos on Thursday seemed to say so, saying business should "set the context" in the EU debate.

It needn't be like this. The European project was never, really, about a free market. Its origins owe more to Catholic political theology than to Keynesian economics. The founding fathers of today's EU, Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer and Alcide de Gasperi, were committed to a new vision of Europe. A vision founded on the idea of peace, solidarity, subsidiarity (a term they borrowed from a Papal encyclical) and the improvement of the working conditions and lives of workers and citizens.

That vision hasn't always been successful. The EU has had its failings; many of them in fact. In responding to the Eurocrisis the respect for solidarity and working conditions has been too often overridden by an obsession with lowering debt, no matter the cost to the welfare state or employment rates. A commitment to peace wasn't enough to stop genocide in Bosnia, or to prevent a crisis in Kosovo. A commitment to subsidiarity has not yet seen the democratic deficit addressed, leaving a technocratic elite in a position of broadly unaccountable power.

Yet for all that there is hope here. The European project once had a very clear sense of its own moral purpose and mission. It had a soul. If it were able to recover that soul it would find itself in a much stronger position. Economic performance is ever variable, but a raison d'être based in being a moral force for good is a more durable status and one that might be better suited to winning the loyalties of citizens. At the very least one would think that Europe's defenders might have something more to say than just repeating those scary economic threats.

Ben Ryan's new report 'A Soul for the Union' by the religion and society think tank Theos available now on the Theos website.