Looking at the European continent as it emerges from the crisis of the past few years, there are a number of issues that catch the attention, such as the handling of the financial and debt burden, the unclear status of European integration, and unemployment and the future of the younger generation. One of the reasons for the widespread doubt and frustration around the continent is the broadening gap between politics and citizens. This can be noted in all the European capitals, and in the European Union in particular it is fuelled by the sense that the European project has been suffering for decades from elitism and bureaucracy. Elections to the European Parliament next year offer a healthy opportunity for an open exchange of opinions and responses to this concern, since only qualified discussion can provide a reasonable answer to the problems Europe is facing. The simple fact is that in the broadest sense Europe is our home. How can we make this home a place to be proud of?
The emergence of Modern Europe
Modern Europe emerged as a product of a specific historical development. In considering the manifold benefits we enjoy nowadays, we must not forget the lessons of history. The fathers of the European project outlined the idea of the future of Europe as a carefully balanced arrangement uniting several factors. From the outset, what we know today as the European Union avoided an overstated idealism and a utopian harmony by linking the aims of the project with the instruments that should serve to achieve it.
The principal aims were lasting peace, stability, and reconciliation, These could not be attained without an interplay with other values, however, in particular justice and solidarity. Robert Schuman, the key political figure of the proposal, was in this respect very clear about ‘undertaking the steps leading to de facto solidarity’.
In practice these steps took the form of economic cooperation, common trade, mutual support in building industry, and cooperation in the area of nuclear energy – at the time of utmost strategic importance. The emphasis on the human dimension of European integration, together with the subordination of economic policies to the three primary aims, was made even more explicit by Jean Monnet, another founding father of European integration, who said in 1952: ‘We are not creating an association of states, we are uniting people’. From its inception the European project was an effort that went beyond reconciling states; its aim was to reconcile the peoples of Europe.
Parameters of strategic importance
A particular ethos played a substantial role in this vision of Europe going beyond the purely utilitarian arguments for economic prosperity. The European project was to be steered by the conviction that reconciliation, justice, solidarity, and stability needed to be parameters of strategic importance. Economic cooperation was given the role of being the instrument to achieve these aims. Without doubt these ideals have played the principal role in the European project, and the European Union acknowledges this fact in a number of its core documents. Unfortunately, browsing through the EU texts of the last decade, it is obvious that political strategies nowadays are guided by a different logic. Instead of justice and solidarity, the focus is largely on economic performance. Prosperity, competitiveness, and economic growth now play a steering role in the EU and determine the direction for all the other policy areas.
A shift in self-understanding
What we face now is a transformation of the European Union’s self-understanding. The core feature of this transformation has been the gradual, almost unnoticed, but substantial shift, in which the role and function of the aims of the European process have been reordered. The original ethos and its related values are still respected, and have never been declared irrelevant, but they have a decreasing power to shape policies. At the same time, the parameters identified originally as having merely an instrumental role have replaced the original ethos, changing the roles of reconciliation, solidarity, and justice into public relations instruments and as mere correctives to hardcore policies. In the new constellation pragmatism and utilitarianism, supported by the ethics of individualism, are taken as guarantors of the target of prosperity, to which has been gradually assigned the role of the guiding aim. This target have superceded all others, which in turn are now subordinated to it, as the dominant objective.
Originally the European project, as the project of uniting people attracted its citizens’ attention by offering them inspiration and participation. For the churches of Europe it was therefore natural to participate actively and offer their contribution. The dialogue between churches and religions on the one side, and European institutions on the other. has therefore become part of the European project. Churches have accompanied developments in Europe through their offices in Brussels and Strasbourg for over five decades.
The impact of the present economic crisis demands that we reconsider this shift in values. Polish poet Adam Zagajewski once asked for a new criterion for making Europe a worthy place: ‘What kind of narrative surrounds the European idea and makes its citizens excited about it and ready to fight for it?… The murmuring of computers will not protect Europe in days of difficulty.’ New management philosophies, cutthroat competition, banking blunders, tax evasion, and huge bonuses, put a limit on the vitality and support of European citizens. The union’s future faces deep-seated challenges for the political leadership of our continent.
The church’s role in the European project
The engagement of the churches in the family called the Conference of European Churches (CEC) in dialogue with the EU is a hopeful liaison in the European project. CEC does not lend uncritical support to the EU, but reasserts the conviction that growing together in Europe is the best option. Church members and communities are called to be engaged in Europe, to raise the challenging questions and come with their own commitments: taking care of the vulnerable, providing shelter for refugees, defending human rights, and protecting the environment. And simultaneously European citizens can become engaged with one another both in these and in the many other areas where joint words and action, developed through sharing across the continent, are the most meaningful response.
The CEC Assembly in the coming days will provide an opportunity to breathe new spirit into the engagement of churches in – and for – Europe.
Rev. Dr Peter Pavlovic
Church and Society Commission