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The Bible & the EU Referendum

The below article is extracted from a larger piece about the EU Referendum by Guy Brandon at Jubilee Centre. Click here to see the full article.

There are good practical and ideological arguments for and against staying in the EU. But how do these measure up against biblical principles, and what new insights does the Bible bring to the debate?

Centralisation vs Subsidiarity

One of the most important elements of the framework within which we locate the Europe debate is that of centralisation and the concentration of power – whether that power is political, financial, technological or otherwise.

The Bible is extremely wary of centralised power, because it is almost inevitably distant, abusive and unaccountable. The epitome of this is Egypt, under whose highly centralised and bureaucratic rule the Israelites spent many years in slavery. Pharaoh, the country’s god-king, owned almost all the land. There was a small bureaucratic elite of priests, the only ones who could read and write. The majority of the population served the network of temples and had, effectively, been in bonded servitude to Pharaoh since the time of Joseph. The Pharaoh of Moses’ time treated the Israelites harshly, working them ruthlessly and ultimately killing the new-born boys in his attempt to maintain control (Exodus 1).

The Israelites’ years of slavery in Egypt fundamentally shaped their identity and faith, and their escape from Egypt is still remembered in the Passover festival every year. But this was not the last time they experienced the abuses inherent in the centralisation of power. In the 8th century, the northern kingdom of Israel was exiled by the belligerent Assyrian empire and essentially disappeared from history. The southern kingdom of Judah was exiled to Babylon in the 7th century, though in this case they were able to retain and even consolidate their religious and cultural identity. On their return to Jerusalem under the new Persian administration, they emerged as the Jewish people.

The Bible’s scepticism towards centralised power can be summarised in the words of the 19th century politician and historian, Lord Acton. ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.’

The risks inherent in any concentration of power meant that the Israelites themselves were supposed to take a different approach in their own political structures. After the conquest of the Promised Land, Israel existed as a loose confederation of tribes, which operated independently and came together under the leadership of an individual only when circumstances demanded it, such as times of war. When the people demanded a king so that they would have a leader like the surrounding nations, this was viewed as a rejection of God’s authority and a development that would pave the way for high taxes, conscription and servitude (1 Samuel 8).

Deuteronomy 17 sets out the laws that were to apply to Israel’s king, when they did demand one. Unlike the kings of foreign nations, Israel’s king was not to amass a personal fortune, his own army, or many wives. He was to be subject to the Law – not above it or even its author, like the Assyrian kings[7] – and was not to ‘consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left’ (verse 20).

Instead of the centralised and top-down management characteristic of Egypt and Assyria, the Bible reflects the idea that decisions should be taken at the lowest, most local level possible – closest to those affected by them, by people who understand their context best, and who have the most interest in their outcome. A task is only passed up to a higher, more central authority if it cannot better be addressed at a lower one. This is explored in the idea of Subsidiarity found in Catholic Social Teaching. The biblical approach to government is therefore ‘as large as necessary, as small as possible’.

National autonomy

The principle of subsidiarity is supposed to be built into the EU, established in Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union:

‘Under the principle of subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Union shall act only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.’

In practice, however, the most contentious aspect of the UK’s relationship with Europe has been the appropriation of more and more power by Brussels, undermining Britain’s sovereignty and ability to make decisions that reflect its own interests. A common complaint is that the legislation that comes out of Brussels imposes significant burdens on small businesses, making it harder for them to function effectively.

This risk of undermining its member countries’ autonomy is seen most clearly in the case of Greece. The terms of the bailout that have allowed Greece to avoid bankruptcy and exit from the Euro have imposed conditions upon the country that were agreed not by the Greek people or leaders, but by EU officials and creditors.

The greater and closer the integration with Europe, the less member-countries are able to determine their own laws and policies. The centralisation of power leads to distant and disinterested decision-making, at best. At worst, it is hostile and coercive, harmful to those it is supposed to serve.

Money and power

The relationships between the EU’s member countries have changed considerably over time. The early precursors of the EU were created through economic integration to prevent tensions from setting them against one another. Now, though, it is the misuse of money within the context of that integration that threatens to pull apart the Eurozone and the EU.

Concentration of financial power is as dangerous, from a biblical perspective, as the concentration of political power – and the two tend to go together in any case. Moreover, debt is treated with extreme caution. In the Bible, taking a loan is a desperate measure intended to avoid absolute destitution. Any loans granted were supposed to be made without interest (Deuteronomy 23:19), because the express purpose of a loan was to enable economic independence – allowing the recipient to get back on their feet. The creditor was not supposed to profit financially from the arrangement.

In fact, charging interest is seen as a form of injustice, a way that the rich extract more money from the already poor. Debt almost inevitably involves a relationship of power. As Proverbs 22:7 reads, ‘The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.’ This is an observation, not the ideal, since the Bible also lays down requirements for lenders as well as borrowers.

Rather than being a means to closer integration for the EU, money has apparently now become an end in itself. That emphasis on the economy and the single-minded focus on the repayment of debt means that Europe is losing the memory of why it was created. Instead of a shared identity, facilitated through money, the culture it is forging is more of an adversarial us-and-them approach that places the survival of the currency and the ideal of union above the actual wellbeing of its members.

This change did not happen overnight. It has been going on for years behind the scenes but was only revealed at the financial crisis. (As Warren Buffett remarked, ‘Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.’) To take the most newsworthy example, the Greeks should not have borrowed so much, but neither should their lenders have kept throwing money at them, in the knowledge that they were almost certainly not creditworthy. Absolutising and protecting the ideal of a united Europe at all costs opened the door to serious abuses, since there is enormous moral hazard due to the lengths that members will go to in order to protect that union. Creditors could and did lend with impunity, knowing that Greece was, like the banks in the preceding crisis, too big to fail. Consequently the bill had to be picked up by other people – namely taxpayers.

Taking a step back from specific cases like Greece, the question of debt and money highlights a far deeper one about identity and culture. What kind of a union are we a member of? And what kind of club do we want to be a part of? The purpose of the EU – implicitly if not explicitly – has surely shifted over the past several decades.


These questions of sovereignty and identity are given yet further relevance by the issue of immigration.

Immigration has been a key part of the argument to stay in or leave Europe since at least the early 90s, with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty (which included the concept of EU citizenship), when net migration turned positive and then started to increase rapidly. At this point it effectively became impossible to prevent EU citizens from travelling to and settling in the UK. With the inclusion of the A8 countries into the EU 2004 (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia), a large influx of immigration occurred from these comparatively poorer Eastern European countries to wealthier nations, including the UK. Although numbers of economic migrants temporarily decreased during the recession, they are now higher than ever before. (Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007 and at the end of 2013 so-called ‘transitional controls’ restricting access to the UK labour market were lifted, though the predicted surge of migrants from these two countries did not happen.)

Whilst the reality of hundreds of thousands of economic migrants freely entering the UK – and potentially competing with native Brits for jobs, public services and benefits – has been contentious for years, the recent refugee crisis has proved an acute reminder of the problems of uncontrolled immigration.

The Bible says little about border controls or immigration, but it says a lot about migrants. We tend to categorise migrants in terms of their reason for entry: work, study, family, seeking asylum, and so on (where possible – in the case of EU migrants, who can move freely, the reason has to be inferred). The Bible looks at the question from the point of view of need and intention.

There are, broadly, only two categories of migrant found in the Bible: the ger and the nokri. The ger is typically described as someone who lives on the edges of society, potentially marginalised and vulnerable. They may broadly correspond to today’s refugee or low-paid economic migrant. They are people who have no family or land of their own, who live hand-to-mouth and are reliant on the goodwill of native Israelites. They are frequently mentioned alongside other marginalised and landless groups who need extra protection. ‘This is what the Lord Almighty said: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.”’ (Zechariah 7:9-10) The ger was generally willing to integrate into Israelite life, and in almost every respect was to be treated the same as a native Israelite (Leviticus 19:34). The Israelites were constantly reminded to look after the alien, ‘because you were foreigners in Egypt’ (Exodus 22:21). The early Church, too, are characterised as ‘aliens and strangers in the world’ (1 Peter 2:11). As Christians, we should identify with migrants, not feeling entirely at home in the world, with its secular culture and very different ideals to our own.

Then there was the nokri, the ‘true’ foreigner – someone who was culturally and financially independent, whose allegiances lay outside of Israel and who potentially represented a threat to its culture and religion. There are numerous warnings about nokri women and gods leading the Israelites astray, often in combination – as was the case with Solomon’s many foreign wives (1 Kings 11). The Bible is far more wary of the nokri, for these reasons, though welcomes those who genuinely want to become a part of Israel, particularly after the exile. Analogous groups today might include the higher-paid and temporary economic migrant, those who refuse to integrate in a meaningful way, and arguably even wealthy individuals and corporations who domicile themselves outside of the UK to avoid paying tax.

Whilst the present discussion tends to focus on the economic benefits, or otherwise, of allowing different categories of migrants into the country, the Bible is more concerned about whether someone from another country is willing to integrate with Israelite culture and religion, or whether they are a threat to the country’s identity. It is also concerned to ensure that the poor and vulnerable are protected, rather than those who are already able to help themselves.