If you are British, the Vatican is probably the safest place to debate with participants from the 26 member states the future of the European Union. We were attending a conference there last week, an unusual mix of former and present EU officials, bishops, cardinals, MEPs, national parliamentarians, civil society leaders and academics, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, some 350 in all. It was a daunting task to explain how Britain's future was now being decided by a few score Tory backbenchers. It was even more daunting to hear between sessions from reliable sources that Brussels believed the UK would crash out of the EU, without agreement, in the "off a cliff scenario".
The oratory, passion, and commitment to the vision and values of the EU of one or two speakers - Chatham House rules preclude names and quotes - came as a revelation. This was not the story of bloated bureaucracy and the shape of bananas sold in the tabloid press The British public have never heard voices of this sort. Instead they were presented by the Leave campaign in the referendum with clever misrepresentations designed to deflect discontents and anger away from national governance onto the convenient culprit across the Channel. While the Remain campaign never rose above deploying its own theme of fear - about the economy. Etonian arrogance was met by popular anger pervasive enough for 4% more voters to opt for BREXIT than against it.
It is difficult to talk in secular Britain of the values and vision of the EU because they owe much to the sap of Christian tradition rising after the Second World War. But to portray the role of the key founding fathers, Catholic statesmen Adenauer, de Gasperi and Schumann, as evidence of a Roman Catholic plot lacks evidence. Their thinking certainly reflected Catholic social teaching. But Pope Pius XII and the Vatican stayed out of the debate. Jean Monnet, French Foreign Minister, an arch-federalist, provided the major momentum towards political as well as economic union. The commitment to pooling some sovereignty, states organising economic cooperation, representative democracy and human rights came as a response to totalitarianism and total war. It was an expression of a widely shared "never again".
Even before the end of the Second World War the Czech and Polish resistance in London were promoting the idea of a union of European nations in response to the Soviet threat. The origins of the EU are no less pragmatic than idealistic. But for successive British governments, torn in foreign policy between the value of the Anglo-American relationship, the Commonwealth and the possibility of dominating a post-war European Economic Community, the overriding concern was sustaining Britain's role in the world during post-imperial decline as political and military power waned. Plus ca change.
What is new is the rise of populism with elements adopted by the mainstream political parties. The British Conservative Party, promoter of the liberal vision of the free market, justifies leaving the largest free market in the world with essentially populist language: "the people have spoken". The question which arises is which ones? The 48% or the 52% ? Or all those who didn't vote? The young or the old? Tte 63% remainers in Scotland? Those who feared the consequences of a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland? To see BREXIT as a sub-theme of a crisis of democracy in Britain, and some other parts of Europe, perhaps diminishes its nature as a spectacular act of self-harm brought on by incompetent governance. Yet in highlighting that democracy requires an informed, rather than a calculatedly misinformed electorate, it points to a core explanation of the BREXIT vote.
Pope Francis closed the conference with a wide-ranging allocution that placed the human person at the heart of Europe and gave a characteristically clear, compassionate and understandable account of the moral issues involved in migration. Sadly, it seemed or the moment a beautiful vision beyond contemporary creativity, political will or grasp. He looked very tired. With the significant differences and historical experiences of East and West, the striking cultural, and socio-economic diversity that is a challenge to any essential redistribution, Europe looks very tired as well.