The making of the European mind
Ireland’s presidency of the European Union, which started this week, is certain to focus on tackling urgent practical problems in the economic and financial sectors, problems it has inherited from its predecessor and that it will pass on in some form to its successor.
This time of persisting anxiety for Europe is perhaps not the ideal occasion to suggest revisiting and reacquainting ourselves with the union’s foundational principles, but in the face of insistent questioning (in Britain in particular but not just there) of the value of the project, we might pause briefly to examine in what context this unlikely political construct first arose and with what hopes it was set in motion.
The international agreements that were put together in western Europe from the early 1950s onwards, and that prefigured the EU, were most obviously a response to the recent trauma of war: the initial internationalisation, pooling control of coal and steel, the essential raw materials of modern war, was intended to make a re-emergence of conflict impossible.
There was also, however, in addition to political and economic motives, a quite strongly felt notion that the six original members – Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg – had a certain culture and history in common.
The new Europeans spoke – dialects and minority languages aside – a limited number of languages, of which English was not one. Historically, the territory covered by what was known to Anglophones in the 1960s as “the Six” was not immensely different from that occupied by the Holy Roman Empire in the ninth century, which comprised Italy only as far south as Rome and not all of eastern Germany, but included present-day Slovenia and parts of Croatia.
In the 1960s, the prosperous core of the European Economic Community was a place of refuge for poor southern Italians, Portuguese and even Yugoslavs, though not for Saxons, who were pursuing their own experiment behind the inner German border. As regards culture, the Europe of Charlemagne at the time of his death in 814 was united, more or less, under the civil and ecclesiastical power.
Whatever languages and dialects were spoken there was a single language of culture, Latin, while in terms of intellectual authority the Roman Church was dominant, almost monopolistic.
Europe after 1945 retained strong Christian features: France, Italy, Belgium, southern Holland, the Rhineland and much of southern Germany were largely Catholic or post-Catholic; northern Holland and northern Germany were Protestant or post-Protestant. But the confidence of the churches had been shaken by 18th century enlightenment and 19th century positivism and science.
They had not gone away, but their mode was now more defensive than magisterial. What could replace them?
Some thought that culture and what was understood as “our common European heritage” could bind us together as religion once had (it had also of course separated us).
But what did this common European heritage actually consist of? Did it even exist? The founders of the EEC were practical men and their predominant concerns were economic and political ones.
And yet there was also a feeling that Europe was a cultural entity or an entity with common values and that it should, from time to time, say something about this.
It may be that the existence of a parallel organisation, the Council of Europe, with specific responsibilities for human rights and culture, for a long time kept the European Union from seriously engaging with the dimension of values.