Fri, 05 Sep 2003

Coming together: The temergence of two European communities

Bronislaw Geremek, Historian, Project Syndicate

Europe finds itself at a paradoxical turning point. While legal harmonization and constitution-making attest to deepening integration, Europe's institutions have failed to generate what every political community needs in order to survive and thrive: A feeling of belonging.

As long as this is true, integration cannot succeed. Quite simply, if the European Union is to overcome national parochialism and embrace a shared and binding purpose, it must abandon the rhetoric of accountants and speak in a language that comprehends what is good and bad, beautiful and ugly, right and wrong.

This won't happen automatically or overnight. Communal values and bonds evolve from a long accumulation of experience, with mythological and historical understandings that give this experience the appearance of having evolved organically. There is nothing comparable in EU integration, which seems far more like a deliberate choice by an imperial few. So it is difficult to see how this path could lead to the collective and individual identity that European unification requires.

Instead, Europe should draw on two periods of community building. Medieval Christianity in its 13th-century formed a community united around a common faith, with Rome as its unifying power center. Saint Peter's successors as Roman pontiffs oversaw a network of Church-run universities which educated cultural elites in the same way and in the same language (Latin). A network of churches -- built in the same style throughout Europe -- shared a common calendar and liturgy. Medieval Christianity was by nature European, although it avoided the word itself and accepted all national forms of cultural expression.

The "Republic of Letters," lasting from the Dutch writer Erasmus until the Enlightenment period, represents Europe's second community. As vernacular languages -- particularly French -- displaced Latin, religious discourse gave way to observation and analysis, with unlimited faith in reason and scientific progress.

A communications network that allowed rapid dissemination of ideas served a common spirit. Intellectual and cultural ties were reinforced by travel, so that statements such as Montesquieu's -- that "Europe is just one nation made up of many" -- flowed naturally.

The emergence of both communities -- albeit in pursuit of opposite ends -- forms the key reference point for a European identity. The German philosopher Karl Jaspers once said that European liberty was founded on the antitheses of "the secular world and transcendence, science and faith, material technology and religion." So the EU should not be afraid to affirm both medieval Christianity's community of faith and the modern era's community of reason. Only this will do justice to the contradictory essence of the European spirit.

But by this standard, the preamble of the draft European Constitution drawn up by the Convention is utterly inadequate. Initially, the Convention refused to include any mention of Christianity or Europe's Judeo-Christian heritage whatsoever, citing only the Enlightenment tradition, alongside the Greeks and Romans. Although a compromise solution was provisionally accepted, its message is weak and obscure.

A pity. To be sure, Europe has paid a heavy and painful price for its religious rifts, and these feuds must not be rekindled. But the Constitution must not only introduce more clarity, transparency, and efficiency into the workings of European institutions; it must also bring the EU closer to its citizens.

This calls for a bit of "European metaphysics." EU leaders should talk about the European idea and the European spirit in a way that encourages Europe's citizens to think about how they came together, why they are staying together, and what they want to do together.

The answer seems to revolve around the central place that European civilization has given the human person since mixing barbarian customs with Christianity. This anthropocentric vision is carried by the 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 Enlightenment tradition, which declares that man is the measure of all things or that he is vested with grandeur and dignity.

The dual foundation of European thought makes it possible to transcend the conflict between religion and secularism that accompanied the recent debate on the ideological bases of the constitution. By taking the model of a civilization that puts man and his dignity in a central position, it can also be the starting point for a genuine discussion on the future of Europe.

The danger here is that "community values" might become a partition that generates attitudes and policies of exclusion. On the contrary, the concept of human dignity must encourage a radical opening towards others. Europe owes it to itself to be pluralist, aware of its cultural debt to the Greeks and Romans, the Arabs and the Jews, learning from its own experience the power of tolerance and the poverty and shame of closed, totalitarian ideologies.

In fact, human rights must define the very image of Europe; it must be its emblem or even its "religion." Human rights should be the ideological benchmark for Europe's internal politics and foreign policy -- otherwise, the creation of the post of EU foreign affairs minister will remain a dead letter. Europe should base the multilateralism of its foreign policy on human rights, while working on reforming international law and the UN system to ensure that human rights win out over short-sighted political calculations.

But most importantly, European integration must not only define institutions and policies, but it must also galvanize ideas. The role of the intellectual debate on the future of Europe is to strengthen European solidarity, to produce ideas and visions that are powerful enough to show realistically what direction to take, and to mobilize the imagination to build a powerful, courageous, and lucid community.

The writer, one of the main advisers to the Solidarity movement before 1989, was Poland's Foreign Minister between 1997- 2000.