Britain, the EU and the Common Good

Jonathan Chaplin


What would it mean to frame the debate about UK membership of the EU in the language of the primacy of the common good, rather than the primacy of ‘British national interests’?

My reflections on this question are informed by insights from Christian political thought but I acknowledge that other Christians draw different implications from these same insights. That doesn’t mean, as Andrew Carey implied on these pages in the edition of 13 May, that Christianity has little to say on the matter.

The language of the common good is not uniquely Christian but in Christian political thought it assumes pride of place. Governments, at any level, and of any form, are said to exist to serve the common good. This isn’t an aggregate of individual goods, nor merely what economists call ‘public goods’. It’s made up of what Christian philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘irreducibly social goods’ – human goods that can only be experienced or defended in common.

The common good champions relationality over autonomy, interdependence over independence, common pursuits over self-interest. It is not anti-liberal but it is anti-libertarian.

But the term ‘common good’ itself tells us little about what the precise role of government is, at any level. On its own it could be – and has been – invoked to justify pretty much anything governments wanted to do. But in Christian thought it gets substantive content and limits from a distinctive vision of human and social fulfilment under God.

It’s spelled out in two ways: first, in related principles such as human dignity, freedom, justice, solidarity, subsidiarity and ecological responsibility; second, in a preference for certain institutional forms through which human fulfilment is realised: marriage, family, friendship; local geographic communities; educational and cultural organisations; businesses and trade unions; political communities; and more.

Of course, all this needs to be fleshed out in more detail for it to guide practice. And it has been – for those who take the time to delve the riches of the Christian political tradition (to which modern evangelicalism has made a rather limited contribution).

A key point is that all these components of the common good must be pursued simultaneously: you can’t pursue economic freedom at the expense of social solidarity or ecological responsibility, or defend your own cultural identity at the expense of justice for minorities.

How does all this speak to the question of UK membership of the EU – to the balance between the British common good and that of Europe?

In the first instance, it means we cannot reduce the debate to questions of British national interest or mere net economic benefit. Governments, at any level, don’t exist to serve only their own citizens but have a wider duty to the common good beyond national borders. Nor do they exist to make us either powerful or rich. But the government’s official leaflet urging voters to vote Remain is framed wholly within those narrow horizons.

Some on the Leave side have at least risen above mere economics and pressed the issue of ‘sovereignty’. Sovereignty isn’t in the list of core principles of Christian political thought I mentioned above, because it’s seen as only instrumental to those other goals. But we do need to confront the sovereignty question head on.

‘We’ve not lost sovereignty, only pooled it,’ the Remain side has been soothingly intoning ever since Edward Heath took us in. But this language can be used dishonestly. It was always clear that by joining the EU any member-state accepts significant restrictions on its capacity to make autonomous legislative decisions in areas where the EU has competence. And those areas have widened and deepened substantially since 1973.

But the debate about sovereignty presents a valuable opportunity to ask what sovereignty – or better, political authority – is actually for?

Sovereignty isn’t self-justifying. It exists to create the infrastructure of public law and policy pursuant to the common good; to advance justice, freedom, solidarity and peace in the public realm; and to enhance the capacity of many other social and economic institutions to make their contributions to the personal and common good.

The right level at which political authority should be distributed – local, regional, national, international – should be decided by what best advances those larger goals within and beyond the nation-state. The last century and a half should have taught us that concentrating power at the level of the sovereign nation-state is, to say the least, a very mixed blessing.

And today, we witness a growing interdependence of nations in a globalising world and an increasing number of interconnected political challenges far exceeding the capacity of nation-states to handle them. Because the common good is increasingly trans-national, clinging to maximum sovereignty at the national level won’t always be the right way to promote the goals of justice, peace, freedom and solidarity, even within the UK.

To address these adequately, we need not only inter-governmental cooperation among independent nation states but also effective trans-national institutions.

I submit that the EU, for all its numerous failings and limitations, is one of these necessary institutions.

In the face of an increasing number of border-defying challenges such as security threats, structural and regional deprivation, environmental degradation, threats to peace on Europe’s eastern borders and the immense challenge of the refugee crisis on its southern borders, we need a robust authority with a remit for the common good across European public space.

Membership of the EU does involve a partial ‘loss’ of sovereignty. But it also involves an immense ‘gain’ in the capacity to exercise effective collective political responsibility in the face of the challenges I’ve listed.

Equipped with that authority, the EU has had a number of notable successes: securing peace among all its members for 60 years; incorporating former authoritarian regimes from southern and eastern Europe into the community of constitutional democracies; a 30bn euro European Development Fund programme (2014-2020) for sub-Saharan Africa; substantial environmental protections such as Natura 2000 protecting over 25,000 sites where biodiversity is threatened; and many more.

The EU is not, like France, officially ‘secularist’. It is no more secularising than the rest of European society and is arguably less so than successive UK governments, of all parties. If ‘British national identity’ is corroding, that’s much more because of the actions of British governments – led either by individualistic neo-liberalism or statist social democracy, than anything done by the EU, which is the size of Leeds city council and only costs us one per cent of our tax receipts.

That’s absolutely not to justify every step towards ‘ever closer union’. That phrase served its purpose at a time when Franco-German reconciliation was the overriding objective. It was always aspirational not legal, but it is now redundant.

Transfers of political authority from member states to the EU are justified only if the imperatives of transnational justice, peace and solidarity clearly demand them, and every case needs to be argued on its own merits.

For example, the failures of the Eurozone are plain for all to see, resulting from premature implementation and poor enforcement of membership conditions.

The EU’s official commitment to ‘subsidiarity’ is supposed to ensure that powers are only transferred when clearly necessary. EU officials will tell you that it often does – in bids for extensions of competence that get rejected and so are never heard of. But the arguments for upward transfers need to be more compelling and more transparent, and they’d be more believable if we also saw some clear examples of authority being transferred back to member states.

Whether extensions of competence are justified also depends on what EU citizens can be brought to support, and that means remedying the gaping deficits of democracy and legitimacy that alienate so many from the EU and is feeding aggressively nationalistic and xenophobic movements across Europe.

The language of ‘British national interest’ has its place but it is cowardly and fatalistic to suppose that British citizens cannot raise their sights higher to the wider interests of Europe at a time of multiple threats.

The EU is an anxious, fragile, laborious, crisis-ridden and often dysfunctional entity. But in the interests of the British, European and global common good, we should stick with it for the long haul, argue hard and work patiently for a much better EU than we have at present.

To pull out would be a terrible failure of vision and nerve with potentially hugely damaging consequences for the world, for Europe and for Britain. As a Christian, I cannot countenance that.


Jonathan Chaplin is Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE) but writes in a personal capacity. This is an abridged version of a talk given at ‘A Balance of Interests: Britain, the EU and the Common Good’ held on 11 May 2016 at St Michael’s, Cornhill, City of London, and organised by Together for the Common Good and KLICE. For more resources, see KLICE’s EU Referendum page,