The roots of European unity

Without the moral vision of its founding fathers the new Europe is a hollow and fragile achievement.
Margriet Krijtenburg | Aug 14 2008 | comment  



Treaty of Rome, 1957, establishing the EU. Wikipedia / EU The warfare that has just flared over Georgia, like the war in the former Jugoslavia leading to the creation of several separate states, is a reminder that the road to a completely united Europe is rocky and uncertain one. At the same time such conflicts throw into relief an important fact about the Europe that is, so far, united: for more than fifty years there has been peace among its member states, a peace that is unprecedented in European history.

The ruins of the Second World War cried out for peace and the need to prevent this kind of disaster from ever happening again. Europe had been the scene of warfare for centuries, but the world wars of the twentieth century -- the first such in the history of mankind -- saw the greatest accumulation of atrocities that had ever taken place. The divisions caused by nationalism and the people’s longing for hegemony through the ideologies of national socialism, fascism and communism during the Second World War and later had shaken Europe to its foundations.

Europe had to be cleansed and cured deeply, so as to avoid a repetition of those major conflagrations, and any warfare whatsoever among its nations. It should no longer be national interests that governed Europe, but a common identity that would bind the nations together.

The founding fathers wanted a union at the service of man and his transcendent being. But is this still the case?

An additional motive in this was the fact that Europe had lost practically all its colonies and therewith its position of dominance in the world. In that sense Europe as a whole and not only Germany had lost the war. America was now the great leader, followed by Japan as it recovered quickly from World War II, and the Soviet Union, which had built up an empire with its many satellite states.

Europe also needed to recover fast so as neither to fall prey to communism nor to give Germany a chance to regain strength and start a third world war. The financial support to rebuild the economy offered by the United States with the Marshall Plan brought relief and made Europe’s recuperation and unification possible. The nations had to unite their interests into common European interests under a common European structure.

The unification of Europe was reasonable, obligatory, necessary, possible and a unique opportunity in history. But what would be the sources of this new European identity?

The Christian heritage

The founding fathers of European unification -- Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi and Jean Monnet -- saw the Christian heritage, including the great impulses of the Enlightenment, at the core of this identity and as the inspiration for cooperation, interdependence and achievement of peace and security.

This is clearly reflected in the following words of Schuman in his book, Pour l’Europe. Schuman wrote that it was “Christianity that taught us that all people were equal in their essence. That the general law of love and mercy -- which could be considered the foundation of our social relations in the Christian world -- turned each person into our brother. And that it was this law and its practical consequences that changed the world completely.”

Commenting on this, Pierre Pfimlin, the last Prime Minister of the fifth Republic of France and President of the European Parliament from 1984-1987, observed that Schuman’s motives for political action were of a spiritual kind. He recalled that it was one of the characteristics of Christianity to conquer egoism and it implied that nations needed to conquer their national egoisms and come to a united effort, to take care of the common good and to attain common welfare. Pflimlin saw Schuman as a realist who worked towards and kept his eyes fixed on his ideals.

An economic giant with a fatal weakness

Next to the search for a common identity based on common history there was a tendency towards the acquisition of economic power, which can be regarded the first requirement for political power. This aspect has emerged as the leading principle of European unification over the last few decades. The introduction of the euro as common currency demonstrates that Europe sees itself primarily as an economic and monetary entity. These days Europe is proud of its status as an “economic giant” and is working to get rid of its image of “political dwarf”. It has achieved a period of more than fifty years of peace among its member states; it is in the process of constantly widening and deepening its integration among (new) member states.

Economic, social and political unification in a well-defined juridical framework were regarded by the founding fathers as necessary means to achieve this union of states at the service of its citizens-- but not the ultimate goal. Their main goal was a society at the service of human dignity based on its Christian roots.

And yet, at the hour of its economic success, Europe seems empty because of its lack of spiritual strength, a strength that is steadily being sapped, and with it the ethical character of Europe. The technical aspects of prosperity are presented as the principal means for the citizen’s well being, while concern for man’s dignity and spiritual development is reduced to a focus on what is technically useful.

In short, I believe we can say that Europe seems to have things upside down: economic means have become the economic and political goals. At the same time they are presented as the means to foster human dignity, but a human dignity without intrinsic Christian roots. Christianity values man for who he is and not only for what he does.

Europe therefore needs to give new life to its identity, its spiritual pillar for unification based on its common history, and not settle for being just an economically powerful union of states without identity. If not, once the economy turns down, it will disintegrate and be in an even more feeble state than it was after the Second World War; it will not have the spiritual strength of its common identity anymore, having cut itself off from its roots in Christianity.

Learning from the founding fathers

The founding fathers of Europe were men of both rationality and faith. Schuman, Adenauer, de Gasperi and Monnet were driven by circumstances to give shape to their rational insights and faith in launching a project that had an unforeseeable impact on history. Jean Monnet came up with a project of cooperation between allies and enemy, a step-by-step integration. First of all, there must be co-operation between France and Germany, so as to end their centuries of conflict over Alsace-Lorraine, a region rich in coal and steel. Other European countries could then join this agreement. He suggested that the governance of this cooperation should be under a High Authority, an organ that governed beyond national interests.

Monnet also foresaw co-operation in other economic and also political fields. The first European organisation, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) became a reality soon followed by the legal body, the European Court of Justice, which nowadays considers all kinds of conflicts regarding issues of European integration.

The founding fathers wanted a union at the service of man and his transcendent being. But is this still the case? Much is achieved in Europe for the material benefit of mankind, but what about man’s dignity as a creature of God, to which everything should be geared?

Peace, prosperity, but what of human dignity?

Peace and security, prosperity and wellbeing are proper to the European Union. There has been no war among its member states since its birth on the 9th of May 1951. Since then the step-by-step functional integration among member states has taken place. The internal market became a reality and was even more facilitated by the introduction of the euro as the common currency of most member states. The enlargement of the Union from six at the beginning -- France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxemburg -- to 27 in 2007 seems to guarantee even more its peace and prosperity.

Next to economic welfare, political unity remains a major goal. National interests decrease steadily now that European common policies are co-deciding more than half of national governmental policies. It causes protests, but the advantages of membership outweigh those “inconveniences” in the shorter or longer term. The European citizen feels ever more European as is evidenced by the way in which he moves across borders, communicates and works with fellow Europeans. He is less bound to his national roots as he grows up in an ever more European environment. Educational programmes across the borders and cultural and social exchange programmes foster this attitude.

The question is, however, to what extent the new Europe may affect the individual citizen’s happiness. According to the original ideal of the union, it is the citizen who is at the centre of its interests. These days, however, it seems that economic interests determine the Union’s policies. The union gives and provides, but does it contribute to the development of the individual’s human dignity?

The economy is booming and many citizens enjoy the enormous benefits that a sound economy brings. At the same time there is the knowledge that economic welfare is not the whole story of man’s existence. People, nevertheless, are trapped by a world that is led by the economy and dominated by consumerism, materialism, superficiality, individualism, inequality, and an increase of violence, terrorism, use of drugs and alcohol. The economy seems to be man’s friend but it also shows itself to be his enemy.

It is only when the market is geared to man’s transcendent dignity that true economic success can become a reality and thereby foster solidarity and equality among men, peoples and nations. European integration therefore needs to be accompanied by continuing thought and discussion about the moral and religious roots of European citizens and their common identity.

Dr Margriet Krijtenburg is a Lecturer in Spanish & Core Course on Europe in the Academy of European Studies, University of the Hague, the Netherlands.



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