Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Moving Heaven and Earth

Reflections on A Soul for the Union by Ben Ryan

This Theos think tank publication is short (60 pages), coherent, jargon-free, well-researched, and politically and intellectually balanced. It doesn't tell you how to vote in the upcoming UK referendum, but it frames the issues concisely and succinctly, and provides some excellent (and much needed) historical context. It is, in short, essential reading.

Ben Ryan shows the extent to which today's European Union (EU) differs from the vision of integration espoused by the project's 'founding fathers' - the Christian Democrat, mainly Catholic, statesmen of the 1940s and 1950s, such as France's Robert Schumann and Germany's Konrad Adenauer. The foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) at the Treaty of Paris (1951) and the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC) at the Treaty of Rome (1958) had, despite their titles, a moral dimension that doesn't always seem so obvious to locate in today's EU. 'The political goal and meaning,' as Adenauer said, 'of the European Coal and Steel Community is infinitely larger than its economic purpose.'

This initial drive towards European unity arose in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Its great aim was to intertwine France and Germany so closely together in the economic sphere that war between these two continental hegemons would become unthinkable. In this respect at least the EU has been a stunning success. The largely peaceful seventy years Europe has enjoyed since 1945 by no means represents the historical norm. Other actors - NATO, for example - have also played a key role in this respect, but the stability the ECSC, the EEC and (since 1992) the EU have provided might perhaps be taken a little less for granted in certain Euro-sceptic quarters. 

By the same token, as Ryan points out, the EU has, three times in the past 25 years, failed to stop hostilities breaking out on its own doorstep - first the Bosnian war from 1992-95, then the Kosovan conflict in 1998-99 and, most recently, the Ukraine crisis. These, Ryan claims, 'were three opportunities for the EU to be a global champion for peace in its own region, and represent (by and large) three failures to do so.' He goes on to pinpoint the key flaw: 'Perhaps underpinning this general failure is the basic point that in the 1950s the European project knew what it was and what it was for. It had a clear sense of identity and was therefore able to be a force for peace confident in what it was defending. Today that is less clear. The impotence of the EU to intervene in crises stems in part from a lack of clarity over what it is meant to defend.' (page 29)

This is the heart of the matter. It is worth quoting the second paragraph of the paper's third and final part - Putting a Soul (Back) in the Union - in full here:

'Today Europe as a political project has no single clear agenda. Rather than six states sharing similar recent histories and a shared political programme, the EU is now 28 member states with disparate political traditions and recent histories. Eleven of them are only a generation removed from communist rule (not including half of Germany). Two (Spain and Portugal) are only two generations out of fascist dictatorships, while Cyprus remains divided. None of these vivid memories that define national cultures, however, are shared across the EU. Unlike in the 1950s, there is no unifying memory to bind states and create an urgent need for action. The very identity and purpose of Europe are now a matter of confusion, and the project has for some time been sustained only by the will of political elites without much regard to public enthusiasm, legitimisation or, indeed, interest.' (page 37) 

The motif that Ryan continually returns to in his text to illustrate this is the change in economic attitude since the 1950s. What was once a collective project focused on solidarity, subsidiarity and the health, well-being and overall prosperity of Europeans is now focused on debt reduction and market performance for their own ends. If this adversely affects whole populations (e.g. Greece), well, that's too bad. If these fiscal imperatives override the democratic will of a people (Greece again) then it is the people who must suffer and pay.

Something, Ryan makes abundantly clear, has gone badly awry here. Europe, in this respect at least, has mislaid her moral compass. And this drills down to what is really at stake. 'If Europe makes its claim and stakes its identity on market 'fundamentalism' and the vagaries of economic performance it will never be able to inspire genuine solidarity and demos. Authentic political affection and identity is based on deeper bonds than the promise of a slightly improved national economy. A Europe worth defending needs to discover, or rediscover, its soul.


Ryan makes a number of telling points in the third part of his paper as to how the EU might set about rediscovering this 'soul'. His suggestions regarding the migration crisis are eminently sensible and one wonders why they have not been more fully taken on board before now.

I would like to focus a little more, however, on this notion of losing and rediscovering the Union's soul. This is the key, I believe, to the central problem facing the EU - that people, to put it simply, don't love it enough. It fails, by and large, to inspire affection, warmth or loyalty. As Ryan shows throughout, the project has been increasingly conducted on a technical level only, leaving the hearts and minds of European citizens behind. The nation state, for all its faults, seems, at the moment, to be the largest political entity capable of inspiring affection. Men and women feel wedded to their country in a way that they don't to the EU, which remains a very abstract concept, and even slightly sinister and cold to many.

This needs to change. If it doesn't, then I predict that the Union will implode by 2020 at the latest. There simply isn't the popular will to fight and uphold the EU in the face of any of the four disasters that could crash down on the continent - (1) one or more repeats of the ISIS attacks in Paris in November 2015, (2) a loss of control of the migration situation, (3) another financial crash, and (4) an escalation of the Ukraine crisis and/or a Russian incursion into another part of Eastern Europe. That's to say nothing of a combination of any and all of the above, the 2016 British referendum or the French Presidential elections of 2017.

Ryan shows how long it took the newly-founded Italian and German states of the nineteenth century to establish a sense of nationhood throughout their populace. There are no quick fixes, least of all for a transnational entity like the EU. Despite the pressure of current events, a long game is required. Just beginning that game, however, sends out an important signal.

The central pillar, for me, is for Europe to take some steps towards reconnecting with the Judeo-Christian heritage, which - as Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Francis have repeatedly declared - lies at the roots of her spirituality, arts, sciences, laws and customs. To acknowledge this would be a simple recognition of cultural and historical reality, not to re-establish the Holy Roman Empire or inaugurate theocratic rule. The humanist and Enlightenment values which came to prominence from the early-modern period should be cherished and valued and seen as part of the same overarching, Christian-inspired worldview, not denied or side-lined on the one hand, or used as 'attack dogs' against faith on the other. 'A house divided,' as the Gospel makes clear, 'cannot stand.'

The aim should not be to exclude and demonise the 'Other' either. Far from it. It is my belief, for instance, that if France was less rigid in her imposition of secularism, then she would have far less difficulty in integrating her Muslim population. Religiously-minded people, whatever their belief, tend to feel more at home in societies that at least acknowledge and respect the importance of religious belief. This is borne out, in my view, by conversations I have had with Muslim parents who have specifically chosen a Catholic or Church of England school for their children.

In repudiating her spiritual heritage Europe runs the risk of creating a philosophical and ideological vacuum, exposing her population to the depredations of a corrupted ruling class or - as in Michel Houellebecq's novel, Submission -  the ascendancy of a non-European civilisation. But none of this has to happen. I acknowledge that not everyone reading this will resonate with my advocacy of religion, but hopefully we can all agree on the need to find a deeper, wider understanding of what it means to be a European, not just the question, 'will being in the EU make me better off?'


Light comes from the East. It may be instructive, as a continuation of Ryan's paper, to consider the EuroMaidan  demonstrations in Kiev two years ago and canvas opinion amongst those who took part. Because the word that springs to my mind, when recalling those extraordinary weeks, is motivation. What motivated the Maidan participants, at tremendous risk to life and limb, to take to the public square and defy their government and armed forces. What was it that mattered to them so much?  Because clearly something did. Something above and beyond economic matters. You don't risk death for a marginally better-functioning economy. You risk death for an idea - a vision - and the Ukrainians found that vision and idea - extraordinary though it may seem to many in Western Europe - in the EU. And that's a humbling and chastening experience for those of us who, through indifference or neglect, don't care enough about the moral, political, religious, cultural, social and, yes, economic future of our continent.

Whatever that 'X-factor' was, it needs to be exported West as quickly as possible. Whatever else may happen, we have to move heaven and earth to make sure that those who died for that vision in Kyiv almost exactly two years ago did not lay down their lives in vain.


At 5 February 2016 at 06:06 , Anonymous patrick finn said...

Good stuff. It's important to cut through the indifference, self interest, barriers to trade (yawn) and be reminded of the EUs historical context. Sometimes, when I examine my support of the EU, it seems that it is almost entirely defined by the bell ends that are against it. Without doubt its currently at it's most fragile state since inception. As an institution its function has always been confused and its messages distorted by a hostile media. Politicians are always 'fighting Britain's corner', which is not really the point.
Identity, for me, is a tricky one. The more obvious apparatus for stimulating nationhood are not available to the EU. (Spain-football etc)and as you rightly point out it has made a high profiled mess out of some of its peacekeeping operations and in defining its purpose.
Despite its problems there should be a significant role for it to play in the uncertain times ahead.

At 29 June 2016 at 04:23 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I am from Australia.I came across your work via your comment on the essay by John Milbank on the ABC Religion & Ethics website - and via Catholicity & Covenant

Please find a truly radical Understanding of the humanly created world-mummery in "2016" via these references on politics & the nature of Reality.
Three sets of essays on politics & culture via:

An essay featured in the 3rd references above

Essays on the nature of Quantum Reality, religion, God and the human situation

Two references on the universal scapegoat mechanism at the root of Western culture in both its secular & "religious" forms.

Essays on the Doubt Mind that mis-informs & patterns every minute fraction of the modern humanly created "world"-mummery

Plus section 17 of this reference on the big-time talkers of big-time false "religion" ,such as John Milbank - there is nothing "radical" about anything that Milbank promotes plus other truth-telling essays


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