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What Holds Europe Together?

Krzysztof Michalski


What Distinguishes Europe?

Michael Mertes

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1The powers of cohesion in an expanded European Union must “be looked for and found in Europe’s common culture” the Reflection Group’s Europe Paper emphasizes. Indeed: “As the old forces of integration— the desire for peace, the existence of external threats, and the potential for economic growth—lose their effectiveness, the role of Europe’s common culture—the spiritual factor of European integration— will inevitably grow in importance as a source of unity and cohesion.” Whether, as stated at the beginning of the paper, a radical re-definition of the EU really is on the agenda, appears to me rather doubtful—I would prefer to think in terms of an accelerated continuing development of the Union in the light of both old and new conceptions of a final goal.

2The emphasis on immaterial factors does not at all imply—as I understand the reasoning of the Reflection Group—a disparagement of material factors. Identity alone creates neither prosperity nor jobs. All public opinion surveys suggest that the citizens of Europe judge national and European policies according to whether or not they are of personal benefit. That is entirely legitimate; it should not be condemned as a symptom of contemptible materialism. Certainly, “markets cannot produce a politically resilient solidarity.” But where there is no growth to distribute, appeals to solidarity will meet with little response.

3Matter-of-factly, the Reflection Group points out that the ambitious Lisbon strategy of the EU has “been overtaken by events.” Indeed, is it not a mistake, by proclaiming large-scale collective economic targets, to pretend to the Union’s citizens that there is a capacity for political management that does not exist at all? Unrealistic voluntarism only leads to frustrations, which unnecessarily discredit the European project. Internal European solidarity would be better served if older members like Germany would undertake courageous policies of national reform and face up to competition from new members, instead of complaining about alleged “tax and social dumping.”

4The space of Europe—according to the Paper—is “in principle an open space,” and European culture must not be defined either in opposition to national cultures or “in opposition to a particular religion (such as Islam).” This is also something I agree with. The most important European values—freedom, the rule of law, democracy— are universal, and of no use as criteria of distinction. The Reflection Group rightly stresses that the identity of Europe (meaning EU-rope, to adopt a useful neologism) is “something that must be negotiated.” If the term “identity” is replaced by the once popular word “essence,” then the full meaning of the sentence becomes evident: the aim cannot be to summon down to earth from the heaven of concepts a platonic idea by the name of “Europe” that has existed for all time.

5The crucial question is not what Europe “really” is, but what EU-rope should be. This is a political question, directed not only at European leaderships and elites, but also at all citizens of the Union. What Ernest Renan said in 1882 about the political identity of a nation also holds true analogously for the civitas of the EU: it emerges from “the agreement, the clearly expressed wish, to continue life together;” its existence “is a daily plebiscite.”

6The issue of future EU expansions, addressed by the Europe Paper with welcome caution, is also subject to Renan’s “agreement”: “Europe’s boundaries too,” writes the Reflection Group, “must always be renegotiated.” On the one hand, the expansion process is not yet concluded; on the other, neither is it determined by iron historical necessities. In my view, the internal consolidation of a Union that has taken place in Romania and Bulgaria takes clear precedence over further expansion projects, which would considerably overextend the Union’s current powers of cohesion. The “plébiscite de tous les jours” needs time to allow a more resilient community spirit to grow out of the new EU-ropean diversity.

7The Europe Paper mentions Turkey’s possible membership of the EU only once, but it is obvious that its statements on the subject of “Islam” must also be read in relation to it. It sensibly warns against “a frontal confrontation between the abstractions of ‘Christian Europe’ and ‘Islam’” detached from any specific cultural and social context. Admittedly, this subject has recently become increasingly explosive, thanks to a series of developments and events. These include the religiously charged political discourse in the United States, as well as the European debate on the limits of liberal tolerance in the face of fundamentalist intolerance.

8The conflict, as far as Europe is concerned, is not bi-polar (“Christian Europe” vs. “Islam”) but tri-polar. A second line of conflict divides Christianity from a secularism that suspects every religiously founded claim to participate in the shaping of society of being fundamentalist. And, finally—largely repressed until the murder of Theo van Gogh—there is the line of conflict between secularism and Islam. Within this triangular relationship, a number of co-operations and alliances are conceivable:

  1. Christianity and secularism against Islam;
  2. Christianity and Islam against secularism;
  3. Secularism and Islam against Christianity.

9The shared interest under (1) is possible, not least of all, because the Christian churches today accept the separation of church and state as legitimate in principle—whatever the national differences in the constitutional position. They have learned to accept the fact that even critiques of religion that appear to them to be blasphemous are protected by freedom of expression, art and belief. They no longer regard the disparagement of their confession as an offence to be prosecuted by the state, and do not at all condone any kind of religious lynch law in God’s name, as exemplified by the cases of Salman Rushdie and Theo van Gogh.

  • 1 Cf. for example, the findings of the “European Value System Study” (EVSS), presented in Hermann De (...)
  • 2 The question put by the Pew Research Center For The People & The Press, Washington D.C., for the o (...)
  • 3 The following table reproduces only a selection of the findings given in “Views” op. cit.

10Although a (shrinking) majority of Europeans still claim Christian convictions,1 Europe today is a “secular universe” (Jacques Le Goff). In Western and Central Europe, there are clear majorities who disagree with the idea “that one has to believe in God to be a moral person.”2 A fixation on the views and way of life of the secular, urban elites in Turkey sometimes blocks our view of the beliefs of “la Turquie profonde”: an 84 % majority of Turkish interviewees agrees that there is a link between religion and morality; in France and the Czech Republic, only 13 % do so. In the West it is above all the United States, with a positive response of 58 %, that displays a marked pro-religious attitude.3

“Necessary to believe in God to be moral?”

“Necessary to believe in God to be moral?”
  • 4 “Gott bleibt am Rand”: Interview with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in Die Welt (24 November 2004).

11The following remarks by the former Cardinal Ratzinger4 may be interpreted as an example of a shared common interest in line with (2):

Secularism is no longer that element of neutrality, which opens up spaces of freedom for all. It is beginning to turn into an ideology, which, with the help of politics is forcing its way into the public realm. (…) In the world of politics it has become almost indecent, to talk about God— just as if it were an attack on the freedom of non-believers… At any rate the firm belief in God of Muslims is a positive challenge to us: their awareness that we face God’s last judgment, together with their custodianship of a moral inheritance and the observation of standards which show how much faith needs general forms of expression in order to live.

  • 5 “American Blues,” in The Guardian (18 November 2004).

12Timothy Garton Ash, a proven liberal, puts forward a similar argument with his warning against an illiberal “secular fundamentalism”:5

If the West is split, then the dividing line runs slap bang through the middle of America—and, on the other side of the pond, through the middle of Europe. We [Europeans] may no longer have as many Christian fundamentalists— compared to the American religious Right Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian Catholic who withdrew his candidature for the office of an EU commissioner, is almost a dangerous liberal. Instead we have a growing number of Islamic fundamentalists. And I would add: We have secular fundamentalists—people who are convinced, that a life in accordance with the teaching of Islam or other religions is incompatible with the values of an undivided humanity, and who therefore want citizens educated in that spirit and for the state to pass the appropriate laws.

13Finally, in the context of the debate on the possible EU membership of Turkey, there arise shared interests of the kind mentioned under (3). They culminate in the polemical claim that reservations against Turkey are substantially determined by the obsolete view that the EU is a “Christian club.”

  • 6 See Pew Research Center For The People & The Press, “A Year After the Iraq War” (March 2004), http: (...)

14Incidentally, the asymmetry of Western Islamophobia and Muslim Christianophobia is noteworthy. While in Western countries 18 per cent (Great Britain) to 46 per cent (Germany) express an antipathy towards Islam, in the Islamic countries surveyed 52 per cent (Turkey) to 73 per cent (Morocco) are antipathetic to Christianity. Furthermore, unlike the United States, attitudes toward Christianity in a number of Western countries are considerably more reserved than are attitudes in Muslim countries towards Islam.6

15The Reflection Group has avoided drawing up a list of European values with good reason: The codification of such values would indeed be “confronted with a variety of diverging national, regional, ethnic, sectarian and social understandings. A constitutional treaty cannot eliminate this diversity of interpretation, even if backed up by legislation and judicial interpretation.”

16Perhaps, however, a European value system can be defined negatively— that is, by way of opinions that are largely rejected in EU-ropa. The following list makes no claim to be comprehensive; it is based on generally accessible empirical findings:

  • 7 Cf. “Views,” op. cit., p. 93.
  • 8 Op. cit., p. 95.

17Nationalism: The rejection of nationalism is the reverse of the readiness to transfer parts of the sovereignty of one’s own state to supra-national institutions. The Pew study “Views of a Changing World” measures the strength of nationalist opinions in accordance with three criteria:7 the view that one’s own national culture is superior to others; the view that one’s own way of life must be protected against foreign influences; the conviction that one’s own country has legitimate territorial claims on neighboring countries. “Interviewees in India, for example,” according to the study, “agree with these statements in particularly large numbers. The same is true of Turks, Bangladeshis, South Africans and Pakistanis. At the other end of the scale significantly fewer interviewees in Great Britain, France and Germany display nationalist attitudes of this kind.”8

  • 9 The following table reproduces only a selection of the findings reproduced in “Views”, op. cit.

18While 89 per cent of Turkish respondents believe that their way of life must be protected against foreign influence, in the most populous EU states, Germany, Great Britain and France, only 51 to 53 per cent still do so.9

“Our way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence”

“Our way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence”

19One aspect of the topic of nationalism is also the question of the readiness to openly discuss the darker chapters of one’s own national past. It would, therefore, be an important indication of political and cultural convergence with EU-ropa if an open debate on the genocide of the Armenians were to begin in Turkey.

  • 10 Op. cit. (Note 6), p. 4.
  • 11 Op. cit., p. 1.

20Antisemitism: The Pew study “A Year After the Iraq War”10 also reveals enormous differences between the Western and Muslim worlds when it comes to hostility to Jews. While in the United States 8 percent, in France 11 percent and in Germany 20 percent of those interviewed express antipathies towards Jews, 49 per cent do so in Turkey and in Morocco as many as 92 per cent. In welcome contrast to other Muslim countries, there is a clear majority in Turkey against Palestinian suicide bombings of Israelis (67 per cent); nevertheless almost a quarter of respondents (24 per cent) consider such attacks legitimate.11

  • 12 Cf. for example the cover story of Der Spiegel (15 November 2004), pp 60.
  • 13 Cf. “Views,” p. 11.

21Family, Women, Sexuality: At the forefront of contemporary European criticisms of the family values of Islam is the lack of rights of many Muslim women.12 In the autumn of 2004 the Turkish parliament had to take note of the fact that the legal impunity of adultery is an established fact in the EU. Less notice is taken of the fact that homophobic attitudes are incomparably stronger in Muslim societies than in EU-ropa. Only 22 per cent of those interviewed in Turkey, think that homosexuality should be socially acceptable, in Germany and the Czech Republic (the two most liberal countries in this respect) 83 per cent are in agreement. The United States (51 per cent), Poland (40 per cent) and Bulgaria (37 per cent) lie between the two extremes.13

22One of the foundations of the European culture of rights is the conviction that not the group, but the individual, is the most important possessor of rights. Hence something it cannot accept is for particular groups to claim, in the name of tolerance, an entitlement to deprive their own members of their rights.


1 Cf. for example, the findings of the “European Value System Study” (EVSS), presented in Hermann Denz (ed.) Die europäische Seele, Vienna 2002.

2 The question put by the Pew Research Center For The People & The Press, Washington D.C., for the opinion survey “Views of a Changing World” published in June 2003; see (hereinafter quoted as “Views”), p. 115.

3 The following table reproduces only a selection of the findings given in “Views” op. cit.

4 “Gott bleibt am Rand”: Interview with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in Die Welt (24 November 2004).

5 “American Blues,” in The Guardian (18 November 2004).

6 See Pew Research Center For The People & The Press, “A Year After the Iraq War” (March 2004),, p. 5.

7 Cf. “Views,” op. cit., p. 93.

8 Op. cit., p. 95.

9 The following table reproduces only a selection of the findings reproduced in “Views”, op. cit.

10 Op. cit. (Note 6), p. 4.

11 Op. cit., p. 1.

12 Cf. for example the cover story of Der Spiegel (15 November 2004), pp 60.

13 Cf. “Views,” p. 11.

Table des illustrations

Titre “Necessary to believe in God to be moral?”
Fichier image/jpeg, 114k
Titre “Our way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence”
Fichier image/jpeg, 86k


Michael Mertes is free-lance journalist and partner at dimap consult, a think-tank based in Bonn and Berlin. Until 2002 he was Editor in Chief and Foreign Policy Editor of the weekly Rheinischer Merkur, Bonn. Member of the Board of Directors, Institute for Human Sciences at Boston University.

Le texte et les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont sous Licence OpenEdition Books, sauf mention contraire.


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