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What Holds Europe Together?

Krzysztof Michalski

Thinking about Europe as a Community

Bronisław Geremek

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1Jean Monnet is supposed to have said that if he were to start again, he would begin with culture. We know that he never did say that because he—the inspiration behind European integration—knew very well that in that case he would have failed. Others say that this process should have begun with politics; but there too, failure would have been inevitable. European integration had to begin with the economy, but its future now depends on the European Union making a success of its efforts to lend itself a political dimension. And it is now that the challenge we can describe as cultural arises, although it goes well beyond heritage or cultural policy. It is more about the big questions: Where do we come from? Where are we? Where are we going?

2Thinking about Europe in terms of political unity—or even as a specific political unit—means thinking about its values, its memory, its traditions, even of the will of its citizens to live together. The challenges facing Europe at the beginning of the twenty-first century require a profound change in the European discourse. We must abandon the language of accountants and go back to the language of day-to-day communication, where we ask ourselves what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, right or wrong. At the current turning point in the European Union’s history, it is not only that Community institutions need to be redefined, but also that a feeling of belonging to the Community needs to be generated.

3The work that has been done in the constitutional field of European Union’s legislative process—I am thinking of the European Treaties and of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and of the European Constitution—clearly demonstrates how awareness of growing Community feeling, of an “ever more united Europe,” is moving forward step by step. But it is eastward enlargement, attesting to the end of the Cold War and ending the division of Europe into two blocs, which has made the prospect of a unified Europe a reality. The Convention on the Future of Europe created by the Laeken Declaration and presided over with admirable skill by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was part of this drive towards European unification. Its importance is measured not only by its immediate result—the draft constitutional treaty (or constitution—the term has become acceptable even to the British)—but also by the fact that it has had an impact on European public opinion and launched the broadest European debate to date. It is here—and not in the wave of pacifism that emerged in the face of the Iraq war—that we are witnessing the gestation of a truly European public space. The future of the European Union most definitely depends on the institutional reforms that will come of it. But it also depends on the debate as to what the European idea really means.

4The debate on “union” must now be accompanied by a debate on “community.” The beginning of this debate on community can be seen in the work of the Convention on the Charter of Fundamental Rights (chaired by Roman Herzog); but in spite of this document having been publicly disseminated it has not had an impact on public opinion. The Convention on the Future of Europe has been only marginally involved in this debate—while it was working on the preamble of the constitution. It is of no value simply to rue missed opportunities.

5If European integration is to progress, we must now overcome the national egoisms which appear in the interplay between governments and call on feelings of shared belonging that go beyond national sentiment. I believe that “a federation of nation states” accurately describes the current nature of the European Union and attests to the fact that the diversity of national cultures is—and, in my view, will remain—Europe’s richest resource. But meanwhile, the national egoisms that are always present in the horse-trading routine of the EU’s summits and in intergovernmental negotiations, are its shame. There was a joke in the Risorgimento (the period of the formation of Italian unity): “we have created Italy; now we must create Italians.” Likewise, we could say that now that we have Europe, we need Europeans. In other words, we need to think of Europe as a community.

6First of all, let us say that this does not necessarily occur automatically. The history of national feeling shows us how difficult and conflictual the process of developing national awareness was, even though it was founded on the feeling of a common destiny and sites of shared memory, and on a common language and culture. The community bond was the fruit of a long accumulation of experience and knowledge, with an entire mythological and historical construction lending it an organic character. There is nothing comparable in the case of the European bond, which seems the result of a deliberate choice, rather than an organic process of evolution.

7When we talk about problems of collective psychology, attitudes and sentiments, future plans and choices of culture (or civilization), we inevitably need to look back at history on the one hand, and values—i.e. axiology—on the other.


8The feeling of belonging, or of European identity, can be considered in terms of different strands of experience.

9First of all, within the weft of European history there has been a series of attempts at imperial unification, all characterized by a respect for ethnic differences and individual sovereignties within the Empire. The old medieval principle declaring that the king is emperor within his kingdom can be understood as the expression of this state of affairs: it sufficed to accept the unity of the empire and the power of the emperor in order to enjoy individual freedom. There were sometimes significant differences between imperial policies. Charlemagne saw the Christianization of the Saxons as a necessary precondition to their submission to his power; the Ottomans, successors to the Byzantine empire, expected nothing from the subject peoples except taxes and tributes—not the abandonment of their faith; Charles V, in his empire on which “the sun never set,” supported Catholicism but was persuaded to accept religious schisms; Napoleon accepted all religions, with the religion of liberty taking pride of place, and accepted all nations, with the Grande Nation at their head, while nonetheless expecting their full submission to the imperial power. The empires saw themselves not only as superior powers but also, above all, as what the Germans call a Rechtsordnung, a legal order. The Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic nation in the Middle Ages imposed a legal framework in which the monarchies and principalities of the time found both a space where they could coexist and rules of administration. The Civil Code carried by the bayonets of Napoleon’s troops throughout Europe (and which left its mark on property or contract law in countries like Poland right up to the present day) could be applied in various political and cultural environments. These legal orders were in no way communities of values. In fact, rather the opposite: they preserved the authorities’ and citizens’ rights independently of the community of values to which they belonged, even without any relation to the fundamental values which they advocated, as long as they obeyed the law.

10We could limit the European Union’s prospects to this experience of imperial unification and conclude, as did the German philosopher Robert Spaemann, that Europe can only become a community of law with all citizens of countries with a European tradition under a common roof when it enables communities sharing value judgments to exist in security, and when it renounces the aim of becoming a community of values. I do not think that we can use the term community to refer to these “imperial moments” in Europe’s history. In the legal order, imposition predominates over participation; the citizen is subject to obligations imposed and rights granted. It would be difficult to see how this path leads us to the realization of the “purpose” of the European Union, or to any kind of reference point for the current process of European unification.

11Equally significant to the current debate are the periods of unification in the history of Europe. First and foremost comes medieval Christianity in its 13th-century form. At its head was the emperor and the pope, ensuring cooperation between spiritual and temporal power, pursuing the “Latin” tradition whereby the Church preserved its sovereignty over the state within the Western world while the Byzantine Church fell under its domination. This community was united around a similar faith and its unifying power had a center, Rome, where the successors of Saint Peter had their seat. It also contained a network of universities that were part of the Church, disseminating knowledge and educating the cultural elites in the same way and using the same language (Latin), as well as a network of churches built in the same style throughout Europe, using the same calendar and the same liturgy. Medieval Christianity was by nature European, although it avoided the word itself (it was only taken up again by the great humanist—and pope—Enea Silvio Piccolomini in the 15th century) and accepted all national forms of cultural expression.

12The second community period in the history of Europe (until the Enlightenment and its flourishing of vernacular languages, with French prime among them) is Erasmus’ “Republic of Letters”—with Latin still the language of communication. The religious discourse that initially dominated this intellectual movement gave way to observation and analysis of the world, with unlimited faith in scientific progress and the force of reason. The natural framework for this community was Europe: the common spirit was served by a communications network that allowed rapid dissemination of ideas and writings despite the technological limitations of the time. Intellectual and cultural ties were reinforced by travel, which provided knowledge of the whole of Europe, and brought the continent closer together. From the pen of these citizens of the Republic of Letters, such constructions as “we Europeans” or Montesquieu’s statement that “Europe is just one nation made up of many” flowed naturally.

13The reason I have chosen to present these two community experiences in this short paper is because together they can be considered the key reference point for a European identity. Both cases were about the formation of communities, but in pursuit of opposite ends. Karl Jaspers, speaking on the European spirit in Geneva in 1946, declared that European liberty was founded on antitheses. “Europe,” he said, “brings together opposite extremes: the secular world and transcendence, science and faith, material technology and religion.” We should also insist that the European Union not be afraid to refer both to the community of medieval Christianity and the community of reason of the modern era, because in this way it will be able to affirm the contradictory essence of the European spirit. And thus justice is done to history.

14There must be a place for religion in Europe’s constitutional documents. Thus, in the Maastricht Treaty, we find the “ecclesiastical clause” proposed by Helmut Kohl, ensuring respect for the status of all churches and confessional communities. In the text of the Constitution drawn up by the Convention, there are clear guarantees of the status of the churches and religious institutions in national legislation and an affirmation of the need for regular dialogue between the authorities of the Union and the churches (Article 51). These legal provisions should go hand in hand with the Declaration of Individual and Collective Freedom of Religion included in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. However, the debate on the preamble gave rise to significant conflicts. First we refused to mention Europe’s religious heritage, then we forgot to talk about Christianity or the Judeo-Christian heritage and cited only the Enlightenment tradition alongside the Greeks and Romans. The compromise solution that was provisionally accepted carries a weak, indeed obscure message. And that is a pity.

15We could of course drop the preamble so as not to create conflict on a delicate subject. Over the course of its history, Europe has paid a painful price for its religious conflicts and rifts. We should do everything to avoid rekindling these feuds. If we consider that the constitutional treaty must not only introduce more clarity, transparency and efficiency into the workings of the European institutions, but also bring the European Union closer to its citizens, we need to introduce a bit of “European metaphysics.” We need to talk about the European idea and the European spirit so that the text can encourage the citizens of Europe to think about how we came together, why we are staying together and what we want to do together. It is in this way that the document could become a tool for a European education—in schools and in life.

16I have only looked at the vicissitudes of the work on the Constitution in order to illustrate the importance of the debate as to Europe’s history and values. It is this debate that enables us to identify those common traits in European civilization to which both religious and secular traditions contributed.

17If we apply “the work of memory”—a concept dear to Paul Ricœur—to Europe, we find how Europe’s identity in the Middle Ages was bound up with a unifying Christian faith and, in early modern times, by the unifying confidence in the power of reason. We also see how agreement was reached on ethical principles defining human behaviors and attitudes, although disagreement remained as to the source of these principles. Finally, we arrive at the fundamental values that Europe chose for itself as the foundation on which to construct a Promethean community of freedom and solidarity. It seems to me that we cannot confine ourselves to making an inventory of the different heritages bequeathed to Europe, since history creates choices and possibilities but does not distribute them; though it forms civilizations and societies it does not restrict them to moulds set in stone. For Europe to advance it must, at every decisive moment in its history, ask itself what it is about.

18The answer seems to revolve around the place that our European civilization has given to the human person since mixing barbarian customs with Christianity. This anthropocentric vision is carried by Christian tradition in the message that man is made in the image of God and that the Son of God sacrificed himself for man. But we also find it in the non-religious tradition, which declares that man is the measure of all things or (cf. Pico della Mirandola) that he is vested with grandeur and dignity. What is important is that this anthropocentrism is rooted as much in the Judeo-Christian tradition as in a humanist philosophy of man. All the values which the different communities draw on—and which the European Union now refers to—are rooted in this specific value. It is human dignity that is the source of human liberty, notions of justice, solidarity or freedom of choice, and human rights. The dual foundation of European anthropocentrism makes it possible to transcend the conflict between religion and secularism that accompanied the recent discussion on the ideological bases of the Constitution. It can also be the starting point for a genuine debate on the future of Europe, by using the model of a civilization and the project of a community that puts man and his dignity in a central position.

19Let us briefly take a closer look at three questions concerning the way Europe works as a community of values. First of all, community values should not be seen as a partition closing off access to the community. Introducing axiology into the political arena carries with it the risk of a tendency towards the absolute, which could generate attitudes and policies of exclusion. We must avoid ethnocentric tendencies that exclude others. The concept of human dignity must encourage dialogue with the Other and a radical opening towards others in the sense called for by Emmanuel Levinas. Europe owes it to itself to be pluralist, aware of its debt to the Greeks and the Romans, the Arabs and the Jews in terms of the handing down of culture. It needs to learn from its own experience the power of tolerance and the poverty of closed, totalitarian ideologies that throw a shadow of shame over Europe.

20Secondly, human rights policy must define the very image of Europe; it must be its emblem or even its “religion.” This applies to the European Union’s internal politics in the same way that the “Copenhagen criteria” lay down the primary conditions for accession. Human rights should be the ideological benchmark for European foreign policy— otherwise the creation of the post of EU foreign affairs minister will remain a dead letter. In the current situation it is very important that Europe should be able to base the multilateralism of its foreign policy on human rights, while at the same time working on reforming international law and the UN system to ensure that human rights win out over shortsighted political calculations. How otherwise can the system and its laws be defended?

21Thirdly, we also need to rethink the model of European development within this “personalist” perspective. In France, as the Ancien Régime was coming to an end, the Committee of Mendicancy formed within the Constituent Assembly declared: ”We have always thought to give charity to the poor, but never to assert the poor man’s rights vis-à-vis society or society’s rights vis-à-vis him.” This revealing statement not only illustrates the power of the human rights syndrome, but also puts the problem of poverty in the perspective of modern social policies. It also encourages discussion of the European social model, not around issues of acquired rights, but around the social dialogue, responding to the requirements of human dignity and incorporating the program of the ATD Fourth World movement into the European project.

22The remedies for European malaise must not concern only the institutions and policies; they must also galvanize ideas. Calls for the formation of a “hard core” of European integration are inappropriate when the most important thing is to strengthen European solidarity. Exploiting an unfavorable view of Americans in order to define Europe in opposition to something negative—just as the Athenians defined themselves in opposition to the Persians or the Europeans in relation to the Arabs, Tartars or Turks—is a strategy that destroys the chances of Europe emerging on the international scene as a useful partner. The role of the intellectual debate on the future of Europe is to go “beyond the pillars of Hercules,” to produce ideas and visions that would be powerful enough to show realistically what direction to take and to mobilize the imagination to build a powerful, courageous and lucid Europe.


Bronisław Geremek is a scholar of Medieval European history and a politician. Member of the European Parlament. Former Foreign Minister of Poland and former advisor to Solidarnošč. From February 2002 Head of the Chair of European Civilization at the College of Europe, campus Natolin.

© Central European University Press, 2005

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