30 May 2014, The Tablet

The Catholic case for border controls

The tectonic plates of British politics are shifting. Ukip’s resounding victory at the European elections is a seismic tremor which saw Labour and the Tories pushed into second and third place, and the Lib Dems into fifth place behind the Greens.

This electoral earthquake is a warning to our mainstream parties, who, rather than reacting with astonished denial, need to accept a great deal of the responsibility for it. A lot of people are feeling disenfranchised from the decision-making process. Chief among voter concerns that benefited Ukip was immigration: there is a sense beyond the confines of any one party that net migration from inside and outside the European Union has been too much too quickly, and that many of our new residents have not fully integrated into British society. This view and the anxieties associated with it have all too regularly been attacked as xenophobic by large and influential sections of the political establishment.

This is a counter-productive approach to tackling the potential rise in the ugliest forms of political extremism. More importantly, it misses the point that how a nation state effectively manages its own borders is a legitimate question for debate within a modern democracy.

Managing economic migration within the EU is primarily a question of subsidiarity. The principle of subsidiarity – that political power ought to be held by the smallest, lowest, and least centralised authority capable of addressing relevant matters effectively – is essential in helping Catholics to grasp how we might react to the rapid rise of Ukip.

When it comes to free movement of workers across the EU, many Catholics revert to a humanitarianism that is vital when it comes to the welcome we ought to give those facing persecution but is less relevant in regard to what is ostensibly a policy derived from free-market capitalism.

Perhaps the free movement of workers is the right policy; I for one welcome our Polish brothers and sisters, who have done so much to enrich the Catholic Church here. However, closing down a vital debate on the correct geopolitical authority to decide European economic migration, on the grounds that questioning the status quo is somehow lacking in gospel values, is hardly an authentic Catholic approach.

We may decide as a country that we are perfectly happy to have relatively porous borders but that does not mean that such decisions must necessarily be pooled within the EU rather than decided at the nation-state.

Why should the influx of relatively cheap labour that suppresses inflation and boosts economic growth be viewed mainly in terms of liberal-minded humanitarian tolerance when it is so obviously a policy founded on free-market ideology that primarily benefits the established middle classes? Working-class people who have seen their wages stagnate – and their value drop – are understandably concerned about immigration; and no doubt take umbrage at the accusation of racism that is typically levelled at them by those same middle classes for whom the free movement of labour has benefited.

In his Christmas message of 1944 “Democracy and a Lasting Peace”, Pope Pius XII said of the European vision that “each state retains an equal right of its own sovereignty” but that in certain areas this would be exercised through “an organ invested by common consent with supreme power”. We need a serious, calm discussion about whether European economic immigration should be a competence completely ceded to that supreme supranational authority. Catholics should be wary of assuming that the answer is an unequivocal “yes”.

Ed Rennie is a former Labour Councillor

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User comments (2)

Comment by: Ed
Posted: 04/06/2014 12:05:20


I think what we need be careful about is avoiding complacency in response to the crisis facing our democracy, of which the rise of Ukip is just one (albeit very clear) sign. Using poor voter turnout as a way to lessen the significance of what is happening (which is what you appear to be saying) is something we need to avoid. That a majority of voters don't vote in all elections but the General Election is a critical factor in the rise of Ukip, but it is also a sign of how disenfranchised people feel. I don't think it apathy, or even cynicism, it is more than likely a considered, perfectly rational conclusion that no decisions of any significant consequence results from voting, even in the General Election!

Yes of course subsidiarity is about everything else as well as EU economic migration. The sense of political disenfranchisement goes well beyond matters EU related, or migration related. But the subject of my article was quite specific, addressing the entire quantum of all the political issues that give rise to voter anger/disengagement and how they relate to the principle of subsidiarity is possibly one of the greatest political discussions going on, as is the Pope's comment to both houses of Parliament in 2010:

'If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident - herein lies the real challenge for democracy'

Comment by: Joseph
Posted: 02/06/2014 08:10:55

We need to be careful about describing what happened in the European election as more than it really is. For a very long time, the winner has always been: apathy. UKIP merely got a little more than 1/4 of those who voted, which was only about 34% or so.

It's not (only) about explaining the case of immigration. It's about everyone explaining everything: both ways. Politicians to explain their offering to the voting public. Voting public to explain what they really what to get done to the politicians.

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