Even while he professed to know little of why the British have chosen to leave the European Union, Pope Francis’ comments on the return flight from Armenia Sunday night are some of the most perceptive of any world leader in response to Brexit.
“Give more independence, give greater freedom to the countries of the Union. Think of another form of union, be creative,” the Pope told journalists, adding that “something is not working in this massive Union.”
The pope is not a leaver, but a reformer. The crisis in the EU did not mean “we throw out the baby with the bath water,” he went on to say. But he pointed to the rise of secessionist movements across the continent as symptomatic of a deeper malaise that must urgently be addressed.
He has identified that malaise in two major speeches that now, in the light of Brexit, seem sadly prophetic.
Last Friday’s Brexit vote, picked over by endless weekend analysis, laid bare a deeply divided nation. The socially mobile, educated, young, urban population — mostly in London and the south-east, but also in cities such as Liverpool and Manchester — voted to Remain. But elsewhere, in towns and villages across rural England, especially among the elderly and less educated, and overwhelmingly in the depressed cities of the north, they opted to Leave.
The Leavers crossed political lines, and ignored their party leaders. Conservative elderly and rural voters as well as Labour working-class voters voted for a Brexit, lamenting that their country was no longer theirs and it was time to take back control, especially of Britain’s borders.
Immigration was a very real issue in the depressed cities of Wales and northern England, where since the accession of the eastern European states in 2004 low-wage workers have found themselves competing against hardworking and ambitious Poles and Romanians.
But across most of the country those least affected by immigration were the ones who objected to it most; conversely, cities transformed by newcomers from Europe as well as elswhere — led by London, where one in three are foreign-born — were most enthusiastically pro-Remain.
In other words, it wasn’t just or even mainly the direct effect of immigration on communities that was crucial to Leave, but the feeling of being “left behind.”
To the disaffected, all institutions, not just those in Brussels and Strasbourg, seemed distant and out of touch.
As Pope Francis warned in his 2014 address in Strasbourg: “In recent years, as the European Union has expanded, there has been growing mistrust on the part of citizens towards institutions considered to be aloof, engaged in laying down rules perceived as insensitive to individual peoples, if not downright harmful.”
In its final weeks, the referendum conversation was not about the EU at all, but about the country Britain has become, about the gulf between north and south, the well-off and the poor, about over-strained public resources, the shortage of homes, and the precarious jobs market.
But rather than address those issues directly, the Leave campaign sold the idea that abandoning Europe would solve them.
Above all white, middle aged, working-class men who once had pride in their identity as miners or steelworkers, who felt belittled by zero-hours contracts and pitiful wages driven down by enthusiastic Romanian migrants, voted Leave.
“Men and women risk being reduced to mere cogs in a machine that treats them as items of consumption to be exploited,” said Francis in Strasbourg, “with the result that – as is so tragically apparent – whenever a human life no longer proves useful for that machine, it is discarded with few qualms.”
This anger has in recent years increasingly driven nationalism, which has wiped out Labor support in the north of England just as last year it wiped out Labor in Scotland.
Britain’s working and lower middle-classes are angry at the banks and the corporations for the 2008 crisis, annoyed at immigrants for driving down their wages and taking their jobs, and furious with the major political parties for not listening to them.
Rather than engage the disaffected in a conversation about how Europe could better serve them, the Remain campaign lectured them about the perils to the economy of leaving. The answers varied from, “well they would say that, wouldn’t they?” to “So what? I haven’t seen any benefit from it.”
It was the language of disaffection, the anger of exclusion.
Pope Francis in his Charlemagne speech spoke of the need to create economic models that do not just serve the few but ordinary people as a whole, moving from “a liquid economy to a social economy” that invests in job creation and training.
He went on to speak of the just distribution of wealth and work, of the need to create “dignified and well-paying jobs, especially for our young people.”
It didn’t happen, and the losers from the liquid economy turned on their rulers. The Leave campaign, despite its own internal contradictions now coming to the fore, successfully created a narrative that persuaded the left-behind that they could “take control,” get their country back, reduce immigration, and invest millions in local services that currently seep away to distant bureaucrats.
“Keeping democracies alive is a challenge in the present historic moment,” warned Francis in Strasbourg.
“The true strength of our democracies – understood as expressions of the political will of the people – must not be allowed to collapse under the pressure of multinational interests which are not universal, which weaken them and turn them into uniform systems of economic power at the service of unseen empires. This is one of the challenges which history sets before you today.”
It is not a challenge which either Strasbourg or Brussels took up. As a result, the EU was seen as part of the global system which had turned London and the south-east into a foreign land.
Seen from Castle Point in Essex (73 per cent for Leave), Camden in London (75 per cent for Remain) is another country, with its insane house prices and $100-dollar-a-head restaurants and waiters and customers speaking in euro-English.
In his Charlemagne speech in May, Pope Francis said that what Europe must now do is “promote an integration that finds in solidarity a way of acting, a means of making history.”
Solidarity, he said, was not charity, but “a means of creating opportunities for all the inhabitants of our cities – and of so many other cities – to live with dignity.”
It is the lack of that solidarity that Brexit Britain has so cruelly exposed. Rather than including the disaffected and disenfranchised, our country assumed that the benefits of being a global crossroads would sooner or later filter down.
The culture of exclusion replaced the culture of encounter. Rather than engage with the peripheries, our political and economic leaders reinforced the center.
Rather than welcoming foreigners, praising them for their contribution to our economy and society, we pushed the immigration issue under the carpet, and left the angry British workers to fight it out with the incoming Polish workers in a race to the bottom of the wage scale.
Pope Francis spoke in the same Charlemagne speech of the need for a culture of dialogue in which people learn to see others as partners in a conversation, “to respect the foreigner, the immigrant and people from different cultures as worthy of being listened to.”
Such a dialogue “reminds us that no one can remain a mere onlooker or bystander” for “everyone, from the smallest to the greatest, has an active role to play in the creation of an integrated and reconciled society.”
To read this now is to realize how right he was, and to weep.
The president of the bishops’ conferences of the European Community (COMECE) in Brussels, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, says the British Brexit vote “confronts the European Union and its member states with questions about their goals and their tasks.”
Marx said on Monday that the European Union “needs a new departure” and must be rethought “on a broad social basis.”
If it isn’t, what happened in Britain last Thursday could happen again, all the way across Europe.