In late 2010, The United Kingdom's recently elected Conservative-led coalition government decided that it was high time to take care of Britain’s “immigration problem.” One of the first acts of the Conservatives was to revise the citizenship exam.1Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents, third edition, revised (London, England: Stationery Office, 2017). More British history and tradition, less advice on how to successfully order a pint of beer, seemed to be the solution. In hindsight, revising a citizenship exam was never going to mollify a rising sense that something had changed since 1973, the year Britain joined the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union. But revising the exam was only the first step, if a feeble one. As aggressive administrative tinkering ratcheted up over the course of the coalition government and throughout the subsequent general election campaign of 2015, Conservatives increasingly felt pressured by their right wing to entertain a renegotiation of their relationship with the EU, on whose doorstep had been laid the blame for the demographic changes of the last three decades. Small efforts to emphasize the history, culture, and customs of Great Britain or to reform employment contracts and work benefits no longer seemed sufficient.
Goaded on by their radical counterparts in the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Conservatives then opted for a more drastic measure: The British people would be given the opportunity to vote whether to remain in or leave the EU. The referendum, scheduled for June 2016, soon became popularly known as “Brexit.” The outcome was surprising, in a year marked by electoral surprises: Fifty-two percent of the British electorate voted to exit the EU.
The ultimate form of Brexit remains unclear: Will it be “hard” or “soft?” Will the UK leave the EU altogether? Stay in the common market? Allow EU passport holders to work in the UK? Regardless of how these questions are ultimately answered, the message has been sent that Britain will no longer belong to the EU in the way it once did.
Britain’s vote was, at the time, puzzling. Did Britons not know what they were giving up? Well, no, in some cases. One of the more popular search items among UK Internet users after the vote was “What is the EU?” For the past decade, however, the view from the white cliffs of Dover has not been what Americans hoped it might be. American progressives in particular have envied Europe’s universal health insurance, five weeks’ paid vacation, and lower levels of social inequality. But in the last year the view has become starkly different, with the emergence of an increasingly permanent security state in France, confiscation of immigrants’ property in Denmark, and violence targeted at refugees in Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Ironically, the Britons most worried about such developments were more likely to vote to remain in the EU. Despite the greater show of nativist resolve on the part of some continental powers, Britons’ suspicion of the Brussels bureaucrats who decide what size of pillows they can sleep on and how many liters their shampoo bottles can hold was not to be allayed. Petty and one-off as these examples may be, they came to symbolize the dangers and fears of belonging to Europe.
Beginning in 2004, with the enlargement of the EU to include former Soviet bloc countries, the EU experienced a concatenation of events that magnified and hastened a deeper unraveling of the European idea. It was not long thereafter that the Great Recession began to be felt on the continent. The 2007 financial crash was most sharply felt in late 2009 in Europe as a sovereign debt crisis, which spiraled out of the control of any one EU finance minister. This Eurozone crisis was only beginning to be resolved in the summer of 2015 when refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and North and Central Africa started to arrive en masse on Europe’s shores. These events have tested the often lazy and superficial rhetoric of Europe’s openness to all. Indeed, the arc of history was supposed to bend toward a Europe without borders.
History, however, rarely arcs so elegantly. Far from being the hope of cosmopolitan liberal democracy, Europe is experiencing a reemergence of the national identities and antagonisms that European values and the union they were meant to bring about were supposed to prevent. The idea of Europe was thought to be that of a future where everyone would belong peacefully and without disagreement. Recently, some of Europe’s leading conservative intellectuals have called this vision into question in their coauthored Paris Statement.2Philippe Bénéton, et al., The Paris Statement: A Europe We Can Believe In, https://thetrueeurope.eu/a-europe-we-can-believe-in/. Accessed December 14, 2017. Pierre Manent, Robert Spaemann, and Roger Scruton, among others, argue that the EU can never supplant the power of the European nations to form the very type of democratic citizens a project such as the EU requires. With its mixture of platitudes and suggestive references to European “civilization,” the statement itself bears all the marks of writing by committee. But the insight at its core, that “Europe” cannot displace the European nations, deserves attention from the internationalist and the nationalist alike.
The history of European identity is itself an argument over what constitutes belonging: who belongs, to what one belongs, and how one might simultaneously maintain several potentially conflicting loyalties. The EU isn’t an answer to these questions, but rather the latest forum and format for debating them. This history might give some indication of whether the EU could possibly give birth to a shared sense of belonging robust enough to survive prolonged political disagreement and division. In the last five years, we have become aware that the EU lacks substantial unifying bonds. For the EU to survive, its member states and their citizens must accept that deep political disagreement is ineradicable and that they require a sense of belonging that can be sustained in and through heated argument, impassioned dispute, and child-like petulancy. For this, Europe must first come to terms with what kind of bond has emerged from its long history of political, economic, and religious dispute.
An Ever-Closer Union?
In 2004, the EU member states voted to admit ten new countries—the so-called A10 countries of Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia, most of which had been part of the former Soviet bloc, or even of the former Soviet Union itself. While their admission was celebrated in the capitals of the new member states, in the restaurants of Brussels, and in the halls of universities, foreign ministries, and media firms across the North Atlantic, it was begrudgingly accepted by many of those living in the previously enrolled EU countries. Grudges in some cases morph into bigotry, but prior to 2010 the new members were accepted as one accepts the death of an elderly parent or grandparent: Its inevitability provided momentary strength to endure. In 2010, a well-trained Euro-watcher could have told you about the growing unease in Europe’s working and middles classes, but not that the European project would start to unravel.
The collapse of the American housing bubble changed all that. The Eurozone crisis that quickly followed the onset of recession in 2008 weakened every EU member state.3Damiano Sandri and Ashoka Mody, “The Eurozone Crisis: How Banks and Sovereigns Came to Be Joined at the Hip,” International Monetary Fund, Washington, DC, November 1, 2011, http://www.imf.org/en/publications/ wp/issues/2016/12/31/the-eurozone-crisis-how-banks-and-sovereigns-came-to-be-joined-at-the-hip-25363. Precisely why and how it weakened the EU is important. On final analysis, the collapse of the euro was not caused by too much sovereign debt, as many on both sides of the Atlantic have incorrectly concluded. Rather, it was the result of a sudden reversal of capital flows.4Paul Krugman, “Currency Regimes, Capital Flows, and Crises,” paper presented at The 14th Jacques Polak Annual Research Conference, International Monetary Fund, Washington, DC, November 7–8, 2013, https:// www.imf.org/external/np/res/seminars/2013/arc/pdf/ Krugman.pdf. In the years leading up to the Great Recession, large amounts of capital moved into Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain from wealthier countries such as Germany, Great Britain, and France. The global financial meltdown generated a wrenching reversal of this flow of money. The wealthy investing countries ceased to pour money into investments in the poorer countries, leaving the private borrowers and banks in Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain to fail, as they depended on a steady supply of fresh capital to service their debt. The defaults of systemically important institutions precipitated a spike in sovereign debt—the borrowers had to be bailed out—just as the United States experienced, but with far larger margins. The problem for the EU was that it was unclear who owed what to whom.
Never ones to let a crisis go to waste, government officials who had been critical of countries with large debt-to-GDP ratios prior to the recession took the opportunity to instill some fiscal discipline into the now heavily indebted countries. Talk of bailouts immediately followed the news of bank failures, but tied to the debt relief were demands for greater austerity. The showdown in 2015 between Greece’s hip young finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and Germany’s stern conservative finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble could not have been better cast. The grievances of both parties were put on display, Varoufakis in black leather jacket and untucked shirt faced off against Schäuble in his sober suit and tie, the former arguing against the impossible demands of further cuts to pensions, the health system, and education, and the latter for greater Greek responsibility for Greece’s debts. Greek citizens felt oppressed by their parsimony-preaching big brother; German taxpayers felt scammed by their smaller sibling’s prodigality.
Policymakers are always solving the last crisis, and Germany’s response to the Eurozone crisis is no exception. The reunification of prosperous West Germany and bankrupt East Germany directly informed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s management of the Eurozone crisis, and the success of reunification emboldened Merkel and Schäuble to push for similar reforms among undisciplined southerners. “After all,” the German sociologist Ulrich Beck quipped, “the Germans want only to help make Greeks, Spaniards, and Italians better able to cope with the world’s markets.”55xUlrich Beck, German Europe (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 2013), 62. Neoliberal reforms—privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, and free trade—had been the backbone of the reunification process in the early 1990s: The social welfare expectations of the newly arrived “Easterners” and liberal agenda of “Westerners” were accommodated in the new techniques of fiscally disciplined social democracy. Neoliberalism was indeed a Faustian bargain, but one that many Germans would be willing to make again.
The question running throughout the various stages of the Eurozone crisis was to what extent EU member states were really in a union. Did Germans have to bail out Greece in the same way West Germans had had to rescue East Germans? Did Germans owe the Greeks the same sacrifice they owed their recently restored compatriots? There wasn’t enough time to resolve this issue before the wars in Libya and Syria and humanitarian catastrophes across Africa and the Middle East brought an unprecedented number of refugees to the shores of Europe. Greece, Italy, and Spain were and continue to be overwhelmed by asylum seekers of both the ingenuous and disingenuous varieties. Very few of these migrants intended to stay in the Mediterranean countries, preferring instead the countries of northern Europe. And so Chancellor Merkel dutifully inaugurated Willkommenskultur in the summer of 2015, opening Germany’s doors to nearly a million refugees over the following twelve months. This prompted yet again the question of what nations owed to others. Did Germany and other wealthy, largely northern countries owe anything in particular to those who arrived unannounced and to those southern countries that served as Europe’s doorstep?
Many people in Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden welcomed the newly arrived, but a growing minority in those states and elsewhere in the EU saw the migrants as yet another instance of the irresponsibility of their fellow “citizens of Europe” to the south. The anger in countries that had weathered the Eurozone crisis energized right-wing parties to challenge Europe’s perceived open door. Marine Le Pen’s Front National party has garnered the most votes, with her France-for-the-French mantra promoting the idea that her nation’s malaise has been produced by political elites who willingly sold out all that was good and right in France. But she ultimately ran a distant second to Emmanuel Macron, a thirty-nine-year-old slightly left-of-center technocrat, in France’s 2017 presidential election. His improvised political party, En Marche!, also won enough seats in last year’s parliamentary election to form a government. Macron promised labor market reform, pro-growth policies, and a France open to the world. Predictably, his poll numbers have steadily declined, for his election did not fundamentally alter the social and cultural anxieties of twenty-first-century France.
Surprisingly, it was in Germany, not France, that a far-right party surpassed expectations. Despite the fact that Germany maintained its culture of political consensus (and centrism) throughout the Eurozone crisis, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland garnered ninety-four seats in the 2017 federal elections, suggesting that not all was well for the progressive and dependable federal republic. AfD had been founded in reaction to the sentiment that Germany had “no alternative” but to bail out defaulting EU member states. Frauke Petry, who shifted the anti-Euro AfD toward an anti-immigrant focus, took advantage of Germans’ hesitation to embrace Merkel’s all-accepting Willkommenskultur, and helped introduce the first far-right party to the Bundestag since World War II. Not surprisingly, Germans were and still are stunned by this development. Immediately after the vote, young Berliners gathered around AfD headquarters to denounce Nazism. As we have observed in the United States in recent months, twentieth-century-style protests can, in the twenty-first century, have the opposite effect of what is intended: Far from raising awareness of the evils of an organization or movement, a protest can be interpreted as yet another example of thought control the right associates with the agenda of progressive elites. Despite the passion of the youthful protestors, AfD is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
Petry and Le Pen, along with Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Jimmie Åkesson in Sweden, represent a move back to a self-conscious nationstate with strict lines between who belongs and who does not. Such developments are often reported as surrendering all the progress the European community has made since World War I the newly confident nationalists of Europe harbor regressive, even racist, elements. But it’s an illusion to think that university exchange programs, a single currency, and limited passport controls would have created an “ever closer union,” as leaders in France and Germany claimed. Even in the golden age of the EU, between German reunification in 1990 and the beginning of the Eurozone recession in 2008, political union was mostly a product of a happy coincidence between steady economies and complacent politics. In one of those ironies that only crises can produce, the Eurozone-cum-migrant crisis revealed that an “ever closer union” had indeed, if inadvertently, been achieved. Germany, France, the Netherlands, and other wealthy members of the EU were in fact responsible for Greece, Spain, and Portugal. The ever closer union was, however, a relationship of co-dependency: It was too expensive for Germany to leave, and Greece had no other way to pay the bills. Is this really the ever closer union that originally justified the modern European project?
Europe’s history is one of inadequate alliances. The conflict over how to belong has defined Europe culturally and socially since the early days of its efforts to unify itself. The EU is simply the latest attempt to foster attachment among its inhabitants. It is in this respect that the EU is a successor to the Holy Roman Empire. The persistent irony of European history is that the nations of Europe only ever discover (or rediscover) their common affinities and interests through their attempted separations and divorces.
The challenges the EU faces are new in certain respects, but not unexpected if one considers the long history of European society. While complex foreign alliances and diplomatic theories and strategies have arisen from all corners of the globe, Europe has consistently had to balance external alliances with internal politics. For most commentators, the seventeenth century’s Westphalian formula— cuius regio, eius religio, or “whose realm, his religion”—which eventually provided the rationale for the warring principalities of Europe to drop their weapons, is as far back as one needs to go. It is at this moment, we are told, that Europe— modern, sensible Europe, shorn of Christendom’s idealism—began to emerge.
But the Westphalian sociopolitical structures and institutions, which we are beginning to see as outdated and even counterproductive tools for resolving twenty-first-century conflicts, simply modified the terms of membership in the Holy Roman Empire, which was itself a modification of the political and social settlement instituted by the fifth-and sixth-century Ostrogothic kings of the Italian peninsula. The challenges to shoring up a unified identity for those groups of people who inhabit the European continent reach all the way back to the way in which the complex civilizations and language groups were originally brought into political relationship. Europeans have always dealt with a tangled web of common law, canon law, and Roman civil law, all of which require constant negotiation and balance.
The Western Roman Empire officially ended in 476 CE, when the Gothic ruler Odoacer deposed the final Western emperor, Romulus Augustulus. The makings of this great event— nothing less than the symbolic Fall of the Western Roman Empire—began with the Germanic, Turkic, and Slavonic migrations of the late fourth and fifth centuries, and post-Roman Europe did not find much stability until the Ostrogothic warlord Theodoric the Great took a page out of Homer and slayed Odoacer at a banquet meant to commemorate their agreed-upon cease-fire. Despite—or maybe because of—Theodoric’s “barbaric” pedigree, the Ostrogothic Kingdom (475–526 CE) sought to salvage the legacy of the Roman Empire in the West.
But what Theodoric inherited was not a unified empire—if such a thing had ever existed, it was long since dead—but a loose collection of communities whose indigenous forms of belonging had been transformed by nearly a century of immigration of Gothic tribes from the north and emigration of Romans to the east. Inhabitants of the Italian peninsula, southern Gaul, and the Iberian Peninsula were Roman in ideal, but tribal in every way that otherwise matters. Theodoric’s great success was in discovering how to do empire by hitching cajolery, reprimand, and persuasion to the well-tested but ultimately self-defeating methods of paranoia, coercion, and violence. Theodoric died in 526 CE, and with him perished the first attempt to salvage the Roman Empire. In 554, the Eastern Roman emperor, Justinian, made a short-lived reconquest of Italy. But Justinian’s invasion backfired: Instead of reunifying the Roman Empire, it set Europe on a course toward fragmentation into a set of small units whose mutual relations would hover somewhere between those of a unified empire and isolated principalities.6Garth Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 169ff.
What eventually would be formally designated the Holy Roman Empire in 1512 had always been mislabeled: It was never really Roman or even imperial. Far from being an undifferentiated unity, it evolved as the product of a collection of alliances, treaties, and accords that were kept in place only as long as they were mutually beneficial to all parties. In fact, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day 800 CE in gratitude for saving his head from the Romans. But greater geographical and economic forces would conspire to keep the pope in the emperor’s lap. By the late eighth century, present-day France and Germany had emerged as the center of western power. Stretching from the Pyrenees to the Elba, the Frankish Kingdom, which Charlemagne painstakingly built through a series of military campaigns and alliances, placed Europe in a centripetal force field that Otto I would use to establish himself as Charlemagne’s successor and the first ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. Every subsequent Holy Roman Emperor had to maintain or recreate these alliances. Inevitably, some were more successful than others.
The Holy Roman Empire was thus not a political unit in the way one thinks of the British Empire. The metaphor for the British Empire is often a rimless wheel, in which all the spokes are connected to the hub but not to each other. Conversely, the Holy Roman Empire was a wheel in which all the spokes were connected to the rim without (necessarily) passing through the hub. The function of the imperial court was, in effect, to embody a transcendental ideal that could provide the basis for a web of bilateral relations among its members. Like Theodoric during his better days, the Holy Roman Emperor had to resort to gentle and not-so-gentle forms of persuasion to keep his principalities in alliance. Sometimes the emperor did this from a position of strength; other times he did it from a position of weakness. This political formation lasted an unprecedented length of time—a little more than 1,000 years.
The Westphalian Legacy
Among the political entities that came and went during its millennium of existence, the Holy Roman Empire was not always the wealthiest or the most innovative or the most “free” (whatever that could have meant). But it endured. Although it was not formally dissolved until 1806, when Napoleon established the Confederation of the Rhine, the Holy Roman Empire had ceased to be a functioning authority during the Wars of Religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which Henry Kissinger has recently described as the “sole generally recognized basis of what exists of a world order,” emerged as a direct rebuke to the Holy Roman Empire.77xHenry Kissinger, World Order (New York, NY: Penguin, 2014), 6. But as magisterial as the treaty was as a diplomatic feat, the plenipotentiaries of Westphalia could not change the facts on the ground: Europe was a subcontinent whose climatic and geographic endowments allowed its populations to shift and change with the waxing and waning of migratory patterns. As in the fourth and fifth centuries, new populations would emerge to contest the Westphalian status quo.
The Westphalian settlement is celebrated not only by Kissinger but by many others as the basis for world order. However, if we demand something more than the crass realism of international relations theory, it could be seen as that which actually prevented and continues to prevent Europe from forming ties across regional, linguistic, and economic differences. Although settlements like the Treaty of Westphalia can be significant steps toward peace, they cannot be the terms for mutual belonging. The Westphalian principle—“whose realm, his religion”—found its success by fracturing the common Christian identity that made it possible to legislate across cultural, linguistic, and economic frontiers. While the “peace” of Westphalia made it less likely that Europe would be a theater of war in the short term, it inadvertently cut off the major resource for forming and maintaining a shared sense of belonging, that is, a common Christian identity.
Ever since the Treaty of Westphalia effectively brought an end to Christendom, European leaders have struggled to find a basis for their union beyond vague generalities. Fostering a shared sense of belonging that is not dependent on a shared Christian identity is, however, made more difficult by the fact that there remains, if only implicitly, a sense of Christendom as Europe’s common denominator in the populace at large. This latent Christian identity, however, is not the theologically lofty vision of Pierre Manent.8Pierre Manent, La raison des nations: Réflexions sur la démocratie en Europe (Paris, France: Gallimard, 2006). Rather, it is a transcendental way to redescribe the ethnic alliances that lay at the heart of Europe. Contrary to the Paris Statement, which calls for a revitalization of Europe’s Christian heritage, there is no reason to expect that such a resuscitation would provide anything other than empty generalities. It is incontrovertible that Christianity played an important part in the formation of Europe as a self-conscious political entity. But the failed attempts in 2004 to include recognition of Europe’s Christian past in a European constitution are illustrative of the undesirability of even a simple acknowledgment. Why Europe struggles with its Christian heritage is a puzzle that gets to the heart of its current dilemma. There is no going back to Christendom, but no obvious shared sense of belonging that transcends local and national loyalties.
What should be taken from the legacy of Christendom is not that Christianity could potentially unify Europe’s inhabitants today but that this period of Europe’s history might model and illustrate how a transcendent sense of belonging allows its rulers and inhabitants to negotiate, disagree, part ways, come back together, and form alliances to address transregional challenges. It is a mistake to presume that the Holy Roman Empire was ever a single undifferentiated entity with strong centralized control. Quite the contrary: The Holy Roman Empire provided a transcendent ideal by grace of which disagreements and even conflicts between its members would not break the union. For such a robust union, Europe requires a sense of belonging that is unthreatened by national and local bonds and the inevitable disagreements among them. In the past, Christianity provided the basis for such disagreements. The refusal of its past, which is not only Christian, but also Roman, Hellenic, Islamic, and Persian among others, cuts off the EU from important models of unity-in-disagreement. Today, the European Union is weak precisely because it is afraid to disagree.
A New Kind of Belonging
Europe has always been a multicultural land. The Christendom project was but one highly flawed way to provide an underlying unity among different cultures, languages, and peoples that are always changing and in flux. As Benedict Anderson noted, part of Christendom’s resilience was that it allowed for its cosmic-universal ideals to be variously manifested among its particular communities.9Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edition (London, England: Verso, 1991), 23. There was, even before the Reformation, great freedom for particular communities to realize the Christian ideal differently. While a resuscitation of Christendom is not desirable or even achievable, Europe requires a union fitted for disagreement, argument, and even a touch of petulancy, an example of which can indeed be found in its Christian heritage.
Since the end of World War II, the gamble has been that the widespread desire for economic growth could kick-start a movement toward union. But it is hard to imagine that the needed shared sense of belonging could emerge from the economic inequalities that exist between, say, Germany and Greece. The parts of the middle class threatened by the aftereffects of the 2008– 2009 recession—the youth without prospects for meaningful employment, and the elderly whose pensions have been reduced—have increasingly experienced life as precarious. They are not necessarily impoverished, but always aware of poverty’s imminent possibility. We were led to believe that economic cooperation would lead to a reckoning over a political and democratic deficit at the heart of the European project. But this assumed that the realism inherent in intra-European relations was possible without a shared sense of belonging that transcended the material.
Europe’s centrists have taught us to imagine the European crisis as a clash between nation-state politics that led to two world wars and a European community that has not gone to war with itself since 1945. The trouble is that the democratic process is restricted to the nation-state. For the cause of peace, we are told, we must limit democracy. Often spoken of in the hushed tones of the cultivated civil servant, this “democratic deficit” elicits furrowed brows and technocratic responses that evade the most basic criticism: Who actually voted for the Brussels-based leadership or its policies? When offered at all, the response to the criticism of the EU as undemocratic draws upon the deep emotional well of “never again.” Accepting the invitation to the EU meant setting one’s face against war. European nation-states were invited to give up some of their sovereignty in exchange for membership in a community that put them on the road toward a cosmopolitan Europe. The nation-state structure was out of date, and besides, it was an unreliable bulwark against the irreparable damage of all-out war. The stability and safety of nonaggressive neighbors, Europeanists argue, should be worth the loss of some sovereignty. In the process, this line of argument killed the legitimacy of healthy political disagreement between nations.
The nation-state’s sell-by date is purportedly fast approaching. However, we are seeing signs that this fungible collectivity still has some life in it: The British voted to leave the EU, Austria has effectively reasserted border controls, and Greece has continued to flout the EU’s debt-to-GDP requirements. The fragmentation has even made it to the subnational level. In 2014, Scotland narrowly voted to stay in the United Kingdom (though a second referendum would likely pass), and in October 2017 the Catalonian region voted to secede from Spain. Local allegiances and loyalties are on the rise. The failure to ratify the European Constitution in 2005 should have been warning enough.
The vicissitudes of the Eurozone-cum-migrant crisis have sufficiently revealed that the arc of history hasn’t bent as expected. The effect of this new nationalism, which is emerging from both the right and the left of the European political spectrum, is that people are not accepting the economic codependency that has emerged over the last decade in the place of a shared sense of belonging. The challenge for Europe is not to simply seek out local sources of identity, but “to create,” as the retired archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has suggested, “a set of loyalties that are not exclusively communal and local in order for those local and communal identities to speak to each other and argue without fear or panic.”1010xRowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square (London, England: Bloomsbury, 2012), 134. As has become evident, secular citizenship and Westphalian-style settlements are not up to the task.
In previous eras, a Christian identity, however weak, superficial, or fungible it might have been, was able to bind Europe together in such a way that local and communal identities were free to express themselves in the concert of Europe, out of which emerged a kind of unity-in-acrimony. Today an exclusively Christian basis is no longer a viable option for Europe, not least because it would be unacceptable to its millions of non-Christian residents. Europe is, of course, still tacitly trading on its Christian roots. From the modern human rights agenda to the very shape of its peoples’ manners and morals, Europe is deeply informed by its Christian past. But there’s a danger to what advocates for Europe’s Christian heritage might accomplish beyond a (rightful and obvious) recognition of their past. The best the signatories to the Paris Statement could expect from the renewal of what they call the “gentle virtues” of Christianity (compassion, mercy, forgiveness, peacemaking, and charity) would be vague and empty generalities. In the worst case, a robust resuscitation of Europe’s Christian identity could inspire and justify ethnic division. In the place of the gentle virtues, we would likely see the empty and decayed forms of these virtues.
Instead of compassion and mercy, we would call for law and order; in the place of forgiveness, we would have mandatory minimum prison sentences; where peace and charity might reign, we would use the state’s resources to fund violence and to pick economic winners and losers. The tragedy of religiously informed political projects in the late modern world is that they so often reveal not the promise and potential of faith in today’s world (which it nevertheless has), but its propensity to divide and suppress. The Christian virtues have the awful and terrifying power to inspire and inform both human flourishing and, when decadent, human suffering.
There’s no reason to expect that a resuscitation of its Christian heritage will solve Europe’s current challenge of fostering a shared sense of belonging that goes beyond mutual economic self-interest. But neither is it reasonable to think that Europe can simply discard its history. If Europe discards anything, it should be the myth that heated argument, impassioned dispute, and child-like petulancy are things of the past. What it has meant and will likely continue to mean to be European is to live with, and in, the recurrent swings between national and transnational identities and allegiances. When viewed in the longue durée, Europe’s political order is not a settlement or even a form of governance. Europe’s politics constitute, rather, a field of creative engagement. To secure its future, Europe requires a union that not only allows for disagreement but also flourishes in it.