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What Holds Europe Together?

Krzysztof Michalski


Needed but Uncertain Cohesion

Samuel Abrahám

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1It was a pleasure to read a sober yet hopeful assessment of the condition Europe finds itself at the present. It is both a relevant analysis for European politicians as well as an intellectual challenge so needed in the contemporary, often cynical, often superficial discourse about all things European. A remark from the text could become a motto for the EU in the best of our enlightenment and liberal traditions: “There is no essence of Europe, no fixed list of European values. There is no ‘finality’ to the process of European integration.” (A cheer for the triple negative—a perfect pendant to the American “In God We Trust.”)

2I perceive the future of the EU as primarily a political enterprise, and for me the key questions in the paper are to what extent “political integration is necessary and how politically potent should the Union become? To what end does the Union need the political ability to act?” We do not know, and in fact it is impossible to say at this moment, yet these are crucial questions. Certainly, spiritual and cultural cohesion is necessary but they certainly do not provide an answer regarding the degree of ‘freedom of political action’ needed for EU executive and legislative powers.

3The authors stress that economics is no longer the source of unity. It neither delivers prosperity as it did before—certainly not uniformly— nor can it become a cohesive force in a highly diverse and evolving Europe. Europe needs political cohesion based not on a common market, they argue, but one fortified by other attributes such as shared culture, solidarity, and institutions of civil society, as well as by an enhanced role for European religions. They are sober in their assessment when they stress that “both the future of the Union and the dimensions of its political integration will be decided by whether these political forces of cohesion exist and whether they prove to be adequate in times of crisis.” Hence they are aware that there is no direct or inevitable transition to replace economics with other forces that bolster political cohesion. Yet elsewhere they state that Europe’s common culture “will inevitably grow in importance as a source of unity and cohesion.” This, however, is not inevitable, only desirable.

4The point is that if, in the past, political integration was fortified by economics, it is not clear whether stressing the centrality of solidarity, along with spiritual and cultural dimensions, will provide political cohesion to a future Europe. I want to highlight this inconsequential relation by focusing on certain paradoxes that have shaped the development of the EU and are relevant to the current debate.

5Just for the sake of argument, let's simplify and say that the pinnacle of the pre-expansion period was the establishment of the common currency—an expression of the confidence and trust in the EU as a viable economic unit. The EU members were ready to risk giving up their national currencies—their ultimate economic protector and symbol. There was no intellectual, spiritual or cultural component involved in introducing the Euro. Nor was there that much need for solidarity in a confident and prosperous European Union.

6However, Europe’s economy has been under increasing strain and it is a part of the EU’s several predicaments (others are the preservation of welfare state, setting immigration policies and the admission of Turkey). Economic prosperity can thus no longer ‘integrate’ Europe. The wide economic disparity among various member states, as well as competition for limited resources and investments, can bring about strain that could threaten the EU’s stability. Hence, another type of cohesion is necessary. From this point of view, it is paradoxical that while the EU is expanding and the former cohesion is under a threat, the focus is no longer on economics, but on cultural and spiritual dimensions that cannot provide the tangible protection and comfort a prosperous economy did before the expansion.

7Another paradox, one might argue, is that intellectual, spiritual and cultural integration would have been more easily achievable in the past, yet were not attempted. In fact, the cultural and spiritual diversity of Europe was considered as an asset. Now that the diversity of the EU is broadening beyond the point of perceiving the EU as a natural unit—and would further do so if there were another round of expansion—there is both a moral and ethical appeal to Europeans to search for a new and common identity that had been assumed, but never explicitly cultivated. The risk is that, however positive in principle, relying on the cultural and spiritual dimension makes the whole enterprise vulnerable. It is not clear whether 1) it is useful, 2) whether it is attainable and 3) if it is attained, to what extent it would deliver actual political cohesion.

8Finally, expansion of the EU and the entrance of the 11 new member states take place within a highly integrated yet fragile economic and political compact. Had these 11 new members entered during the southern expansion two decades ago, most likely there would be no need to stress cultural and spiritual cohesion now. What would have had mattered then would have been economic discipline and the schedule of transferring structural funds in order to share and spread prosperity—institutional solidarity would have been sufficient. There would have been gradual legal and political harmonization, yet these would have been less dramatic than what we witnessed in the past several years. The final paradox is, then, that, as the EU diversifies and the expansion undermines and weakens its economic homogeneity, there is a call for something that is necessary, but more difficult to achieve than if it had been attempted in the past.

9One realizes that bureaucrats are important because Europe is, among other things, a huge bureaucratic enterprise (to assure “political institutions with legislative, administrative, and judicial functions”). Yet bureaucrats cannot mold Europe into an organic unit. Similarly, politicians are important; in the end it is they who decide. Europe, however, should not become a playground where they play out their political ambitions. They should recognize, as the authors point out, that Europe is not a ‘fact’ but above all ‘a task and a process.’

10European bureaucrats and politicians would have to incorporate into their mindset the idea that political integration and the degree of its legitimacy depend on the depth of cultural and spiritual cohesion, and on solidarity among Europeans. And this is an intellectual challenge and goal that is neither inevitable, nor one that would result from routine political deliberation. One contribution towards this goal is the reflection summarized in the Europe Paper. In the end, the key question is whether the politicians will pay only lip service to the conclusions of the analysis, or whether the authors’ worthy effort can become a strategy for a new Europe.


Samuel Abrahám is political scientist living in Bratislava. Editor of the journal Kritika & Kontext and founder of the Society for Higher Learning.

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