The people of the United Kingdom who voted to leave the European Union have rejected a false spiritual vision
Brexit has finally arrived, and it is a triumph for Britain and for Europe, if not for the European Union.
There was a time when Christians like Hilaire Belloc would confidently say things like “Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe.” Of course, Belloc was entirely correct in saying so in 1924. “Europe” was forged into a unity not by a souless bureaucracy in Brussels, but had received its essential unity from Christianity. From the time of Augustine to Charlemagne to Blessed Karl of Austria, Europe was a Christian idea. Even the great attacks on metaphysical realism which began some six hundred years ago, and which advanced steadily through the reformation, dividing up Europe along new political axes could not shake the fundamental sense that it had a kind of spiritual unity which was Christian.
The Schuman Declaration of 1950 was a kind of post-war reconstruction plan for Europe, and it marks a new kind of being imagined for Europe. French foreign minister Robert Schuman and others believed the material causes of the war could be eliminated by pooling coal and steel production. Bringing France and Germany together “under a common High Authority” for economic development was their stated aim. Yet the common authority being established in these nascent years of the European Union was never merely economic. The goal was loftier. The Schuman Declaration understood itself to be engaged in remaking Europe. “Europe will not be made all at once…it will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.”
There could be no doubt that in 1950 there was a new kind of spiritual dream emerging. The new idea for European unity was thought to be more spiritually advanced, more “existentially” aware. It had the potential to create a political harmony that would hold nations (and nationalisms) in check. Existentialist philosophers such as Henri Bergson had earlier imagined, with his distinction between individual matter and élan vital, that a “creative evolution” was possible for European man. A generation later, Christian democrats like Jacques Maritain staked out new “personalist” anthropologies which similarly envisioned that our selfish individualism, just like our violent nationalism, could be overcome through new kinds of political cooperation that would help us to come of age as citizens and persons. There was a wild kind of optimism which Christians and non-Christians alike seemed to find attractive. The new vision for Europe was born out of this existential yearning for peace and solidarity, yet it was still in search of some “creative evolution,” beyond nations, towards a greater whole.
Against the backdrop of Communism, the European Economic Community, as it came to be called in 1958 at the Treaty of Rome, would highlight the way in which shared prosperity could bring peace and solidarity. However, after the Fall of the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, it was clear that “a new stage in the process” had been reached, and the dream of liberal unity was rushing ahead by the dialectics of historical necessity. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992, officially known as “the Treaty on European Union,” laid the foundations for a single currency (gradually introduced from 1999 onwards). Yet more immediately, and arguably, more in line with its much grander vision, the Maastrict Treaty gave birth to “European citizenship,” and something like the “creative evolution” of a greater whole was being realized. The United Kingdom was one of the original twelve member states — yes, like that original sacred body which gave birth to Europe, there were twelve. “Europe is the faith, and the faith is Europe” now meant something new which Belloc never imagined.
In 2004 the European Union drafted a new constitution that invited much controversy after seven (mostly Catholic) member states insisted that the constitution make explicit reference to “the Christian roots of Europe.” Pope St John Paul II had warned in 2003, in “Ecclesia in Europa,” that such “efforts to create a vision of Europe” which ignore “its profound Christian soul” will withdraw the enlivening sap from the ancient tree. Of course, the saint was right. But it made no difference the following year.
The request from member states to reference the Christian roots of Europe was rejected. Christian Democrat MEPs valiantly lobbied to include in the new constitution a milder reference to the “Judaeo-Christian” roots of Europe. Yet to no avail. In truth, all such demands were only late realizations that the new “vision of Europe” that had been emerging was not merely neutral about Christianity. It had a different spiritual vision entirely, and aimed at a different kind of unity emanating from Brussels.
The dream of the European Union was born out of enormous shared suffering. It rose out of ashes. Yet the dream evolved into the wrong kind of faith. It was taken over by managerial elites who had forgotten the God who made Europe, but not her wars. As St John Paul the Great warned, it was taken over by a false hope which is depriving European people of children and churches and hope.
The people of the United Kingdom who voted to leave the European Union have rejected this false spiritual vision and its anti-political manifestation. Brexit is largely and rightly seen as a populist rejection of globalism. But it is also something more. It is evidence that any attempt to remake European unity on some faith which forgets God is as unsteady as that tower once built so high in Babylon. The United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union should be seen not only as a return to self-governance, a recovery of agency on behalf of their own political common good, and as an encouragement to other nations to do likewise. It should also be seen as a call to return to that highest common good which we can call God.
Brexit has triumphed. The people were right to reject the false faith of the European Union. But Britain should take care to recover the true faith — the faith of Belloc’s Europe, and not Brussels.