A Vision for Europe
Kenneth Medhurst, July 2019
Introduction - The Historical and Global Context
As never before the always vulnerable post-Second World War international order is under threat. That United States-led and rules-based order built around such institutions as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank stood relatively firm in face of the challenge presented by Soviet-inspired Communism. Within the 'Western World' the validity of liberalised trade, liberal democracy and liberal conceptions of human rights tended to be taken for granted (even if the relevant principles were sometimes honoured as much in the breach as in the observance!). This led, in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, to a spirit of triumphalism. Liberal democracy and free market capitalism were assumed to have won definitive victories. The Iraq war was just one if especially significant example of an underlying belief that the whole world could be remade in the image of the 'West'. A certain complacency seemed to be the order of the day.
Latterly, such optimism has yielded to caution if not pessimism. By further destablising an already unstable region the Iraq war was itself the harbinger of more uncertain times. Thus Putin's Russia and, above all, Communist China have initiated a new era of competitive great power politics in which economic and technological resources are deployed with a view strongly to asserting national interests or to disrupting existing international arrangements. The Trump administration appears also to be functioning along nationally assertive and internationally disruptive lines.
These essentially political developments have been accompanied by economic challenges. Major shifts first occurred in the 1970s. The oil crises of that era precipitated changes in international economic orthodoxies and priorities. An emphasis on government action (nationally and internationally) with a view to promoting stability and to minimising unemployment gave way to an emphasis upon the relatively free play of international markets.
'Globalisation' to a large extent became a matter of binding the world together through competitive market-led economic transactions. This process has undoubtedly lifted many out of poverty but it has also created great and potentially destablilising inequalities both between and within nations. One response, at the international level, has been a move toward protectionism if not toward ultimately destructive and impoverishing 'trade wars'. At the national level it has sometimes led to the impoverishing of whole social sectors or of entire regions. Established communities, built round particular industries destroyed by international competition, have been laid waste. As a consequence many across the 'developed world' have lost a sense of belonging or of having a meaningful stake in the established order. A sense of being devalued or disrespected has tended to grow. The resulting frustrations have found expression in populist movements that pit 'the people' against established elites. They are movements driven by resentment and sometimes find refuge in nostalgic longings for idealised pasts. Trump's victory and 'Brexit' are both symptoms of such underlying disorders.
Europe has inevitably been caught up in these developments. Europe having been the seedbed of two global conflicts, some of its post-Second World War political leaders were in the vanguard of efforts to establish international arrangements upon new and more solid foundations. Their distinctive contribution was to launch the continent on a pathway intended to lead toward irreversible forms of integration and cooperation. Prominent amongst those initially involved were Roman Catholics with a shared Christian-inspired vision of a reconciled and peaceful Europe within whose frontiers war would be abolished.
There was a particular emphasis upon Franco-German reconciliation. It was a vision shared by secular socialists. It was, very importantly, a vision emphasising respect for human rights, support for liberal democracy and a concern for the widespread sharing of material prosperity. Of particular significance is the fact that it was a vision encouraged by the USA, which saw a more united Europe as part of the general postwar international architecture.
The initially chosen instruments for achieving such goals were economic in character. The aim was so to integrate national economies that war would be unthinkable. Thus the six founding members of the 'Movement' (France, Germany, Italy and the 'Benelux Countries') created the European Coal and Steel Community. The Treaty of Rome (1957) subsequently created the more broad-based European Economic Community. Much later (1992) the Treaty of Maastricht paved the way for the current European Union (EU) - a union entailing the 'Single Market' and, in the case of some countries, Monetary Union. The door was also opened to more explicitly political forms of union.
The experiment's early years coincided with a period of unprecedented material prosperity which helped to generate optimism and a sense of forward momentum. Thus the UK and some other nations overcame significant reservations and were drawn into the 'European orbit'. The same forward momentum carried over into economically less auspicious times. The post-dictatorial governments of Greece, Portugal and Spain saw membership of the 'European Movement' not only as a means of sharing in material prosperity but also of underwriting newly acquired democratic credentials. Similar considerations impelled former Communist countries to journey down the same route. For them, in particular, it was a means of joining the 'European mainstream'. Some former Communist countries are still waiting to join.
Latterly, this 'European Movement' has lost some of its forward momentum. Some argue that it has lost its way. There are those persuaded that it has lost its raison d'être. Exponents of the latter view suggest that the EU's origins lay in circumstances that no longer apply. They also point to recent policy failures and conclude that the Union is not fit for contemporary purposes. The handling of the post-2008 economic crisis and, in particular, the burdens laid, most notably, upon Greece are cited. Also cited are responses to mass immigration. The centrifugal forces represented by national populism and, especially, by Brexit are also put on the charge sheet.
Here it is suggested that this is not the time to yield to pessimism. Rather it is a time to learn from past mistakes and for a reordering of priorities. This reordering may, in part, be inspired by a revisiting of the original postwar vision. It may also involve a fresh vision articulated in response to changed realities.
The original vision entailed reconciling former enemies and ensuring peace. The EU's contribution, on this front, can be too readily taken for granted. Moves back to less orderly intra-European relationships carry too easily discounted risks.
Peace is more than an absence of war and requires constant attention. Not least there is the issue of corralling a resurgent Germany - an imperative recognised by many Germans. Even within the EU Germany is the beneficiary of asymmetrical power relations. Outside the EU that issue would be still more problematic.
Looking to the future it can be argued that the interests of Europe, if not the world, may be best served by enhanced and not diminished political or social cooperation. At the very least a cohesive Europe can act as a counterweight to those great powers intent on disrupting established international arrangements. A divided Europe is ill placed to resist such challenges.
These political issues cannot be separated from economic concerns. Maintaining or restoring international economic order requires trading blocs able to bargain on equal terms with the world's great powers. Taming the politically or socially disruptive power of globalised markets and corporations similarly depends on international rather than individual national efforts. This applies, not least, to social media. Above all, tackling the impact of climate change points in the same direction.
Already, the EU has impacted significantly upon the global economy. It has, for example, done much to establish internationally accepted trading standards. These are foundations to be built upon.
The remaining question concerns the cultural and institutional changes that may be needed in order to unlock the potential that could currently exist with the EU. Here it is suggested that forward momentum could be based on six very general principles. They are principles that are consistent with the values that, from the outset, have undergirded the 'European Movement'. They are, consequently, principles around which people of faith and 'children of the Enlightenment' could gather. They are also principles that could be translated into action in both the cultural and institutional domains. These principles, and their outworkings, can be summarised under the following headings.
An unusual feature of the EU is the way it has brought nations together on a voluntary and largely consensual basis. This contrasts with earlier attempts to unify the European continent through conquest and force. To that extent it is an experiment that transcends the limits of traditional 'Realpolitik'. It points to the possibility of a morally driven form of politics more concerned with justice and welfare than with control and power.
The aim, in principle, is service rather than domination. The concept of the EU as servant rather than master deserves exploration in the context of any forward-looking vision. For Christians it corresponds, at least in part, to our call to be the servants of others.
The concept has outward-looking and inward-looking dimensions. Looking outward, the EU's vocation could be actively to promote the cause of an international order based on justice and law. Its values, together with its human and material resources, can be mobilised to this end. Its very existence offers the world a model, albeit imperfect, of how nations may fruitfully cooperate.
The inward-looking dimension of the EU as servant points toward a dedicated search for 'the common European good'. This is a necessarily elusive concept. It does, however, correspond to an established continental principle whereby the state is viewed as the guardian of a general public interest transcending the interests of particular groups. (It is a principle better understood on the continent than in the UK). The goal is to give life, at the supra-national level, to understandings still subsisting at the level of the nation. The goal envisages governance as a moral quest rather than an exercise in management. In institutional terms it implies a shift away from the French-inspired technocracy associated with the European Commission and toward more obviously politicised and accountable bodies.
On the policy front it particularly implies strong political control over the hitherto largely independent European Bank - a bank currently more concerned with fiscal orthodoxy than social cohesion or welfare.
Solidarity, in Christian terms, represents the practical outworkings of the command to love one another. The concept points to a quest for 'the common good' and consequently toward shared purposes underwritten by shared values.
Already there is a relatively substantial degree of solidarity amongst Europe's political, economic, cultural and, not least, ecclesiastical elites. That, in its turn, rests upon and gives expression to some sense of a shared European identity existing particularly amongst some portions of the continent's younger and better educated elements. However, the Brexit referendum has drawn attention to the many, found across Europe, who reject any such identity. For them there is little or no sense of pan-European solidarity. They cannot readily accept the compatibility and coexistence of national and supra-national loyalties. For those concerned to build a more unified Europe this is obviously a major challenge.
The challenge can be met in varying ways and at different levels. On the political front, there is an obvious need to bridge the gap that has opened up between the occupants of Europe's institutions and the publics that, in principle, they serve. It is a gap that has been described as a void. It is a void attributable to leaders and led withdrawing into their own separate realms - disengaging one from the other. It is a void or vacuum that has been at least partially filled by national populist movements and their demagogic leaders. The need is to develop an enhanced sense of solidarity between and amongst politicians and peoples. The building or rebuilding of trust is key.
The scale of the 'European Project' and the apparent remoteness of its institutions obviously makes this a difficult undertaking. In the long run the call could be for federal political institutions which, whilst honouring divergent national interests, could facilitate the emergence of genuinely Europe-wide perspectives when it comes to the tackling of shared problems. For example, there could be a greater pan-European sharing of economic or social benefits and burdens, thus, for example, avoiding repeats of the Greek debt crisis and responding more cooperatively to the challenge of mass immigration. Equally, there is the possibility of a relatively more unified European political elite capable of offering more obviously legitimate leadership - leadership of perhaps a more visionary kind than is generally offered in the context of current technocratic models. One of Europe's difficulties, especially evident in the UK, has precisely been the absence of a vision appealing to the heart as well as the head - a vision able to stir the imagination and not just address narrowly self-interested concerns. The relative absence of an appropriate vision leaves the field open to divisive forms of nationalism with all their obvious 'pulling power'.
In the short run, and partly as a preliminary educational exercise, there could be imaginative experiments in Europe-wide deliberative democracy. Such experiments could, in themselves, give birth to fresh visions. All in all there is a call seriously to address the issue of the 'democratic deficit'.
Underpinning all of this and nurturing a lively sense of a shared European identity there needs to be a dynamic Europe-wide civil society that builds on preexisting national foundations. In embryonic form such a society already exists. It is constituted by the myriad of groups gathered around European institutions - groups defending particular industrial, financial or agricultural interests. The call is for both interest groups and voluntary associations with a more obviously European vocation - a vocation capable of helping to engender a fresh morally inspired pan-European vision or shared purpose.
A fresh morally inspired sense of purpose is not least called for in the economic realm which, hitherto, has constituted the EU's very heart. This requires nothing less than a refurbishment of capitalism's spiritual and moral basis. The aim, with the EU's help, must be to ensure that 'markets are made for man not man for markets'. Mammon, as represented by current economic orthodoxies, needs to be dethroned. The objective, in other words, is to legislate for markets that facilitate solidarity and welfare rather than engendering destructive competition and harmful division. Equally, and closer to the 'micro-level', there is a call for businesses to promote greater solidarity between capital and labour. Business as a promoter of general social cohesion deserves similar attention. In these particular instances Germany may have a useful role to play in any pan-European learning exercise.
In the long run, however, the vitality and durability of the 'European Project' depends on it being much more than a predominantly economic endeavour. As Jacques Delors recognised, the project calls for a 'Soul' or for foundations lying much deeper than the realm of shared material concerns. The European civil society that is called for is one that draws upon and fosters shared deeply embedded values. It is also one that sees itself as heir to a culture which may have distinctive national roots yet reaches out across national borders.
In this context one inspirational model could be Erasmus - a spiritual and intellectual leader who was no great respecter of frontiers. Not coincidentally, he gave his name to the EU scheme designed to promote pan-European student mobility. Given the apparent receptiveness to the 'idea of Europe' on the part of the young, could the spirit of Erasmus be more widely invoked amongst those with whom Europe's future lies? Already there are spiritually inspired movements, associated, for example, with twinning arrangements and pilgrimages that could be pointing the way forward. The same goes for some latter-day monastic-type communities scattered across Europe.
Ultimately all of this could be translated into the public or civic realm in the shape of a shared European citizenship. That legal concept already exists but, for many, has little substance. It could become an instrument whereby the sense of sharing in a 'Common European Home' becomes 'rooted in earth'.
It is perhaps paradoxical that one pathway to greater solidarity may be the invocation of subsidiarity - namely the principle that decision-making is likely to be particularly effective and legitimate when, as far as possible, it occurs close to those most affected by the decisions in question. It is a principle commended by Roman Catholic social thought as a feature of any healthy society - national or supra-national. Theoretically it is recognised by the EU. The health of the 'European Project' may partly depend on turning theory into more substantial practice. A fresh vision for Europe may entail widespread debate designed to identify what decisions can be readily handed down to the national, regional or even more limited levels. Some regulatory regimes, for example, might be better administered within more localised arenas. (The German federal system is an example of how overall central supervision can coexist with substantial local discretion). Likewise, and not least at the regional level, local groups or associations could be more obviously incorporated into EU decision-making processes. All of this is likely to enhance the quality of decision-making whilst building greater support for the 'European Project'. That could preempt potentially dangerous concentrations of power. It might also foster the development of a more vigorous civil society characterised by enhanced levels of self-governing associational life and popular participation - forms of activity likely to promote greater trust in existing institutional arrangements. Not least, in this era of 'identity politics' there is the possibility of according greater honour to deeply felt and widely shared regional loyalties. (Amongst many other cases, those of Catalonia and Scotland come to mind).
From a Christian perspective, and most fundamentally, subsidiarity tends to promote respect for persons whilst facilitating healthy communal life. With it there is an increased possibility of overcoming the alienation, cynicism, disenchantment and anger which gives life to the populist movements currently threatening to tear Europe apart.
Ultimately the project rests on shared values. They are often values which, at rock bottom, are of Christian inspiration. They are, however, values that other faiths may, at least in part, share. They are also values that, in secularised form, can be embraced by many 'children of the Enlightenment'. They are the already cited values undergirding liberal democracy and expressed in the concept of 'human rights'.
There is a sense in which existing European institutions are stewards or custodians of these values. By becoming attached to institutions the values in question acquire a certain salience or durability. They are held in trust not only on behalf of the EU's existing member states but also on behalf of states within its orbit. (An insight that Britain outside the EU might wish to ponder). In other words the values in question are not just the EU's preserve any more than the EU can be considered coterminous with the concept of Europe and its attendant civilisation. The EU, however, particularly by courtesy of its foundational values, can act as an inspiration and a source of moral strength to those not within its frontiers.
Stewardship, in this sense, may sometimes entail the reinterpretation of values in the light of fresh insights or experiences. For example, there could be a call to reinterpret adhesion to the concept of individual human rights in the light of fresh understanding of the ultimate interdependence of humanity, across both space and time. Rights may need to be seen within a social context and with reference to future generations.
A primary responsibility of all aspiring to rule is the provision of safety or security for all within their jurisdiction so that the governed may flourish and prosper. In that spirit, the European movement was, from the outset, conceived as a 'Peace Project'. The aim was so to bind Europe's nations together that the longstanding scourge of war would be permanently lifted. The project is far from complete but, in terms of this original goal, it has been unusually successful - an achievement which, in the absence of an adequate historical sense, can be too readily discounted.
The remaining question concerns ways in which the future security of Europe's citizens may best be maintained and, more broadly, how the EU may best serve the cause of global security.
Clearly one of the factors drawing countries into the EU's orbit has been the prospect of association with a relatively large and cohesive yet voluntary entity characterised by an unusual and reassuring degree of inter-state solidarity. Such solidarity, making for enhanced security, can find expression in many day-to-day practical matters. Cooperation in the spheres of conventional policing and crimefighting spring to mind. But solidarity can go further and deeper. This has been exemplified in recent Brexit negotiations by the way in which EU members have shown solidarity vis a vis the particular difficulties of the relatively small Republic of Ireland - difficulties having implications for peacebuilding on the whole island of Ireland. Perhaps it is in fostering all that makes for such solidarity that the cause of security, within Europe, may best be served.
The same solidarity offers an important measure of confidence to those EU members feeling threatened from without the union. The Baltic Republics come particularly to mind. Russian interventions in Ukraine and Georgia indicate that such anxieties may be all too well founded. In instances like these there is a case for the military protection or deterrence of the defensive kind supplied by NATO (to which not all EU members belong). NATO may also give a framework within which relevant EU members can fruitfully cooperate for the purposes of seeking arms control and ultimately disarmament. An underlying morally inspired unity of purpose can be one of the EU's particular gifts to the world in the handling of such matters.
In the same spirit and when faced with international conflicts the EU (as already demonstrated) has a capacity for the mounting of unarmed peacekeeping forces within areas experiencing or threatened by armed conflict. Such missions may enable the EU constructively to engage with messy international realities whilst remaining true to its original vocation.
Above and beyond all of this, the EU, as an association embracing some of the world's most affluent countries, can be a global pacesetter when it comes to addressing some of the root causes of conflict and insecurity. Aid, trade and wealth-sharing programmes, across the world, can do much to alleviate those injustices which can readily engender violence and armed conflict. Such programmes need to be seen as acts of service, in the cause of global order and peace, rather than as forms of neo-colonial control. They can help to lay the foundations of a more just order needed for the underpinning of any durable security.
By moving along such lines the EU can unlock much of the potential still lying within this, as yet, relatively new experimental and evolving form of governance. Most fundamentally it can powerfully witness to the conviction that true and lasting security ultimately hinges on factors lying beyond the military realm or the realm of security as conventionally understood.
All of the above ultimately depends upon the EU nurturing societies and economies that have long-term sustainability. This particularly means confronting the challenges presented by climate change and global environmental degradation. Obviously this is not a matter for the EU alone, but that institution's supra-national character clearly means that it may be particularly well suited to exercise international leadership in the tackling of these necessarily global issues.
The EU's already noted and positive impact upon international trading arrangements could perhaps be replicated, in a grander and more durable fashion, when it comes to confronting humankind's most evidently daunting and shared problems. Global problems call for global solutions, lying far beyond the capacity of individual states ploughing their own separate furrows. The EU can influence others and itself be a trailblazer in the taking of appropriate action.
The issues involved are vast and complex. A few can be highlighted. Firstly, there is a call for practices and policies making far more measured stewardship or conservation of earth's resources - human as well as material. That may particularly, though by no means exclusively, entail attention to the generation and use of energy. Equally, and over the long term, attention needs to be paid to those patterns of mass consumption which can give rise to the squandering of earth's finite resources. Additionally, there is a need to move in the direction of long-term and well directed investment programmes providing for appropriate infrastructure and above all, some guarantee of sustainable yet fulfilling mass employment. Not least, the EU as an association of some of the earth's most affluent countries is called to be imaginative and generous in helping the world's poor positively to rise to current challenges.
Those challenges are obviously huge. However, the relative success of Green Parties in recent EU elections suggests a spreading awareness of issues at stake and foundations upon which to build.
For a Britain probably on the verge of Brexit this discussion may seem largely irrelevant. In reality this cannot be the case. In or out of the EU the United Kingdom, by dint of history and geography, cannot escape its 'European destiny'. The UK has its distinctive history and problems which have produced ambivalent if not hostile attitudes to the 'European Project'. Those attitudes helped to shape the outcome of the 2016 referendum. The outcome, however, was also shaped by economic, social, political and ultimately spiritual challenges largely shared by European neighbours. They are challenges that, in the UK, as elsewhere, might be confronted by reexamining public life and leadership in the context of service; by exploring the meaning and relevance of solidarity; by invoking the concept of subsidiarity; by seeing stewardship as the backdrop to our strivings; by considering modes of security; and by placing sustainability at the heart of our deliberations.
All these concepts represent loud echoes of elements within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Christians of differing backgrounds - Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant - may, at these points, find common ground. The same concepts have their counterparts in other great faith traditions. Not least, they can often be located, in secularised forms, amongst 'heirs of the Enlightenment'. To that extent they can be the basis for meaningful dialogue amongst all the relevant protagonists.
Such a dialogue can serve as a source of guidance for those seeking to bring Europe's peoples closer together. In the case of faith communities, and particularly those of Christian inspiration, it could be objected that, within Europe, 'secularisation' has diminished their relevance and influence. However, the reduced salience of institutionalised religion does not remove the responsibility of faith leaders to make distinctive contributions to public debate in the light of their distinctive insights or understandings. There are still reserves of good will upon which the guardians of faith traditions can draw. Moreover, a certain distancing of those guardians from 'secular' power provides opportunities for the raising of prophetic voices. Those voices can point to the faith-inspired values at work in European history or culture and, upon that basis, articulate fresh forward-looking visions. Such visions have the power to engage the sympathies of those, particularly amongst the young, who are aware of the moral vacuum frequently evident in contemporary Europe and who are looking for a renewed sense of direction or meaning.
This can play out in many different ways. There is obviously a call to challenge all those forms of idolatry driven by fear or hate that threaten to shipwreck the 'European Project' (under this heading comes 'worship' of the state, nation or market). For people of faith there is a special responsibility to combat both religious prejudice and religious extremism. Solidarity in face of these challenges can be a major contribution to European peace-building. There is also a distinctive contribution to be made when it comes to recognising the need for wise stewardship of the earth's resources and for acknowledging the ultimate interdependence of all humanity across both space and time.
A particular and ever more pressing need is to sustain bridge-building and dialogue between UK and continental European faith communities. Who knows: their cooperative endeavours might be able not only to facilitate the exploration of shared challenges but also to play a part in guiding the UK back to closer relations with continental Europe. By the same token, they could also awaken a livelier popular awareness of a shared European heritage. (As locally rooted communities yet with messages having universal import they are, in principle, well equipped for this task). Such an enlivened awareness could have its part to play in those processes of healing clearly called for amidst current difficulties.
For 'Faith in Europe' and, more importantly, for faith communities at large, there is still clearly an important European vocation to be pursued.