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Let us Get Political Again! On the Political Theology of European Integration

A couple of months ago, Istvan Deak, an emeritus professor of history at Columbia, wrote an inspiring piece for The New York Times about the current state of European integration. With a heavy dose of intentional provocation, he posits the most fundamental question concerning the European Union: can the integration process in Europe withstand the storms brought about by the current economic crisis? His answer is clear. The integration project is doomed unless a new Charlemagne appears and provides the empire (yes, the European Union is a form of empire for the professor) with a new ideal, a new “imperial construct” that would transcend the EU´s political squabbles, help overcome Europe’s fragmentation and inspire the EU with a new sense of identity, solidarity, and identity.

Even though Professor Deak does not use these exact words, what he is writing about is the need for an overarching (implicit or civic) religion – a shared sense of purpose and common fate, a system of strong political values which are not an object of political debates but rather the overarching framework in which these debates take place. This conundrum can be rephrased in more general terms as well: can a political entity be built and sustained only on the sense of common interests or is a deeper transcendental bond needed to keep the entity from falling apart? Can politics be purely utilitarian, or are shared mores and beliefs essential for the survival of any political association?

This set of questions is by no means new: it was already at the end of the 19th century when German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies introduced the distinction between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society). A Gemeinschaft, of which a family is the prime example, is a community of people who share the same purpose and whose actions are best understood as contributing to this single purpose. A Gesellchaft, on the other hand, is a purely instrumental arrangement with each of its members pursuing his or her own private interests. Which of the two basic forms of human associations is more stable? The answer is, as always, that it depends. If the normative foundations of the societal order are weakened, the Gemeinschaft is put at risk, and the danger is that the value-based community might degenerate into an interest-driven Gesellschaft. If, however, the common interests start to diverge, the Gesellschaft also loses all justification and disappears.

At the moment, the EU is threatened by both these developments. It is now being attacked by those eurosceptical forces which claim that the market is enough and that we should get rid of the sentimental blabber about the shared values of the Union. The market-oriented eurosceptics are heavily supported by those conservatives who believe that we should differentiate between the allegedly natural bonds (forged solely in the nation-state) and the EU´s artificial construction of the European demos, which they claim cannot but fail. The common tenor of this rather awkward alliance is that the EU is a purely utilitarian project, a common market and nothing else. Yet with the arrival of the recent economic crisis, even this weak understanding of European integration begins to be questioned. If we do not share common values and if our current economic interests drive us apart, why should we bother with keeping the European Union working?

Luckily for the EU, this kind of reasoning is deeply flawed on many levels. The various problems connected with it include (1) the excessive reliance on the essentialist distinction between the natural and the artificial (which is, paradoxically, itself artificial, i.e. socially constructed); (2) the prioritization of (economic) interests over other interests (why should it be more beneficial for EU citizens to exchange goods than to promote the human rights they value?); and, above all, (3) the amnesia of these critics of the EU regarding the history of Europe. Were France and Germany not the most important trading partners before World War I and II? Were Serbs and Croats not intensely economically interconnected just before the outbreak of the Yugoslav wars? To put it bluntly, a Gesellschaft, a community of interests, is the wrong choice for Europe.

So what is the EU to do to prevent its disintegration? Let us be honest: As warped as the eurosceptical attack on the Union may be, it resonates in some layers of the European populace, and the rhetoric has become more aggressive. Obviously, no religion as such can provide the EU with the transcendental underpinning that would imbue it with renewed strength and that would simultaneously be capable of uniting all EU citizens – Christians, Muslims, non-believers and all the others. And yet, a unifying common cause (beyond the economic calculation) is badly needed.

But there is a way forward. The EU has its own “implicit religion”, and a surprisingly well-developed one at that – it centres around EU values. These values are nigh omnipresent in the official speeches and EU documents: “The Union is founded on the values” are the first words of Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty. Here and elsewhere, the values are almost ritually worshipped and repeatedly declared “non-negotiable”. President Barroso, in a rare poetic moment, even described the EU values as “an anchor in a storm, and a lighthouse, to guide our way”.

But why does the integration project look so shaky when shared ideals are in place? This question deserves a closer inspection. In fact, the EU values consist of two sets of principles – one set is made up of those principles which the EU took over from its member states: human rights, liberal democracy and rule of law. The other set is made up of the values inherited from older integration projects and international organizations like the League of Nations – peace, international cooperation and the democratization of the continent.

The first set of values is enshrined in national legislations, and in the eyes of many, the EU is superfluous in this area, since it does not add anything substantial to the already protected values. The second set consists of “international values”, where the Union´s position should be stronger than that of the nation states. And yet it is not the case. The problem is that Europeans have forgotten all about war. War has become the other in both the temporal and the spatial sense of the word. Today´s Europeans are convinced that the centuries-old enmity between, say, the French and the Germans is buried so deep that it does not deserve more than the increasingly rare ritual references on the occasions of state visits between the two countries. Even the quite recent wars in the Union´s vicinity have not shattered this mindset. The bloody conflicts in Yugoslavia and in the post-Soviet space only reassured West Europeans that we – in the civilized part of the word – are not like them, the “Eastern barbarians”.

The EU should take some tactical measures that would shed more light on the link between the Union´s existence and international peace. Many such possible measures were mentioned by Professor Deak. According to him, the EU must support international academic exchange, it must sponsor the Erasmus Programme, and it must do more in terms of the transparency of its decision-making. This is all good and well. But this is not enough. The real strategic challenge does not lie in getting financial support for these initiatives. Nor does the EU need a new Charlemagne, a romanticized but often brutal monarch with a trail of bloody conquests in his wake.

What the EU needs is a politicization of the European public sphere. The EU must become a political animal, not an exercise in technical expertise or an economic project. In this sense, the recent demonstrations against the EU are paradoxically a good sign. For the first time in the history of European integration EU citizens shook off the suffocating pall of the so-called permissive consensus, which allowed politicians to proceed with the continent´s integration as if its citizens did not exist. The EU should be liked and disliked; it should be discussed in the pubs and in the streets. For a political demos to be born, what is needed is not necessarily a common language, but common political debates. The combination of a re-affirmation of EU values and a politicization of the integration process is the only way forward.

The process may stumble at times, perhaps temporarily strengthening eurosceptic and xenophobic parties and movements radically opposed to the political integration of Europe. The EU may become momentarily weaker, but what would make it truly fragile is not anti-EU sentiments but the EU´s inability to make these sentiments part of the Union´s political arena. Those who deny the EU´s values should be allowed to present their cause – let them be tested by the voters: do we want a highly unstable Europe of changing interests or do we prefer a Union based on a basic consensus about our fundamental political values? Once eurosceptics lose the aura of martyrs and dissidents and become a normal political force, their appeal will gradually dwindle.

Let us get political again: the Enlightenment-inspired dream of a technocratic Europe must give way to the Europe of values baptized in the fires of politics.


Petr Kratochvíl works as the Deputy Director of the Institute of International Relations. His research interests cover theory of international relations, European integration, Central and Eastern Europe, the religion-politics nexus and international political philosophy. He has published about a hundred monographs, edited volumes, book chapters, and articles, among others inJournal of Common Market Studies, Journal of International Relations and DevelopmentEurope-Asia Studies, and Journal of Communist and Post-Communist Studies.

(This publication was financially supported by the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic titled The European Union and theRoman Catholic Church: the Political Theology of European Integration, no. GAP408/11/2176).

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