Establishing the boundaries of Europe: religion, human rights & democracy

Marcus Wischik

The European Union is based on a large set of values, with roots in antiquity and in Christianity which over 2,000 years evolved into what we recognise today as the foundations of modern democracy, the rule of law, and civil society. This set of values has its own clear moral foundation and its obvious metaphysical roots, regardless of whether modern man admits it or not.
Vaclav Havel


Europe's identity has never been primarily geographical—as late as 1958, Russian geographers extended Europe's eastern border to include the Ural Mountains—but Europe has always been more than a physical region. Ever since the Greeks, its name has referred to an ideal entity. This essay will examine the differing components of this ideal, and consider what boundaries are most appropriate to surround it.

On Greece & Rome

The name first appears in the myth of Zeus, who, disguised as a bull, abducted Europa, the daughter of Phoenix (or Agenor king of Phoenicia, or one of the daughters of Oceanus depending on who you read), and carried her across the Mediterranean to Crete. Early Greek and Roman poets endowed Europa with attributes characteristic of the Greek mind; aesthetic sensitivity combined with scientific curiosity. These account for European culture's commitment to scientific and philosophical development, and also for its artistic, cultural and poetic creativity. The story also serves as an elegant metaphor for the waves of migration from Near Eastern civilisations that have shaped European culture.

Rome, which progressed from a village to being the centre of an empire in a mere four centuries, possessed little of Greece's intellectual and aesthetic genius. It was, however, eager to absorb a culture that she recognised as superior to her own. Roman armies exported Greek heritage over the Italian peninsula and across the Alps, converting Hellenic ideals into the fundamental principles of Western culture.

On Historical Unity

Various portions of Europe have been "united" a number of times in its past: The Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Napoleonic Empire, and lastly the Nazi Third Reich, and a recreation of one of these states is undesirable to say the least.

With the decline of the Roman Empire came the demise of the political unity it had brought to much of Europe. Although Christianity had begun to shape the minds of the "barbarian" invaders who had defeated Rome, the collapse of the Empire left no Europe-wide political structures to support this new link. No common law or authority held the shifting tribes together in this Dark Age.

Ironically, it was the invasion of Europe by Islam in the eighth century that made the new occupants of former Roman territory aware of their common spiritual identity. As much as Europe owes its cultural foundations to Hellas and its moral vocabulary to Christianity, it quite literally owes its political unity to Islam. For without these outside impetuses, Polish troops would never have marched to the aid of their mortal enemies in the Holy Roman Empire in lifting the siege of Vienna, nor would Martel have fought the battle of Tours. This is perhaps the wrong kind of unifying spirit to aspire to, though. This is recognising oneself as similar in comparison to an alien outsider, and as such is based on a common hatred.

The Greeks, the Romans, the Christian apostles, and indirectly the invading Muslims—each in a different way—gradually induced a sense of European unity that surpassed the ancient tribal loyalties. Perhaps the current European project will have similar effects regarding nation-state loyalties?

With the emergence of the nation-state after the Truce of Westphalia, the fragile unity began to come apart. The exclusiveness with which the nation-states asserted their sovereignty led to brutal wars fought for political and economic supremacy, often justified in religious terms. In the sixteenth century the conflict between Reformation Protestantism and Counter-Reformation Catholicism led to even more terrible and bloody conflicts. Europeans eventually realised they needed to agree on some principles of political coexistence and religious tolerance if they were to survive at all.

Enlightenment thinkers attempted to provide these principles. They streamlined political institutions, subordinates all statutory law to a common natural law, and argued that confessional differences mattered less than a common Christian or philosophical faith. Voltaire in Le Siècle de Louis XIV optimistically described Europe as "a kind of great republic, embracing several states … but all in relations with one another, all having one and the same religious basis, the same principles of public law, and the same political ideals, all of them unknown in other parts of the world".

Even through Enlightenment thinkers opposed divisive nationalism, most of them were instinctively hostile to the traditional notion of a European unity built on a Christian basis. They proposed to unify Europe on the basis of the abstract idea of a common humanity. In doing so, they disregarded existing traditions, customary rights, and diverse cultural identities. Few European nations were prepared to accept such a radical overthrow of the past. After Napoleon, the ideologies of undifferentiated unity and divisive nationalism once again confronted each other. Their hostile standoff ended in the cataclysmic collision between the Nazi or Fascist movements and Communism in the twentieth century. The death-throws of this struggle continued to divide Europe along heavily-armed ideological lines for almost fifty years.

On Religion

Rome's armies spread an ideal: Christian faith. Inspired by its Hebrew mother religion, Christianity caused a moral, philosophical, and ethical paradigm shift within Roman culture, fundamentally transforming it. But one cannot describe Europe today as fundamentally Catholic, nor indeed entirely Christian. The Christian legacy, however, has left deep marks on Europe.

The Czech philosopher Jan Patocka described the characteristic quality of Europe throughout the ages as le souci de l'âme. This consisted primarily of a high respect for the inner life, in his interpretation. Plato and Aristotle claimed we shared the life of the gods by cultivating this inner life. For Christians, to acquire divine insight through faith was not a hermetic privilege reserved for the few, but a gift open to all believers. It was in the pursuit of this belief that Europe's numerous monasteries and universities were founded to preserve the flame of Europe's spiritual and educational heritage during good times and bad. Even the ideal of the Enlightenment—sapere aude—often used as a war-cry against the preceding Christian ages, remains anchored in Greek, Jewish, and Christian thought. Thus a continuous spiritual thread links the successive sources of Europe's unity.

The committee headed by the former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing faced numerous controversial decisions, not least of which was the wording of the preamble to the draft EU Constitution. The proposed preamble barely alludes to religion, let alone any mention of the role played by Christianity in uniting the diverse array of tribes and nations that formed in the vacuum created by the collapse of the Roman Empire. Indeed, from ancient Greece and Rome, the text jumps directly to the Enlightenment; it remains silent on the intervening period, merely suggesting that Europe's present inhabitants may draw inspiration from their "cultural, religious, and humanist patrimony". Some delegates contested even this modest concession to an essential part of Europe's past, and preferred to replace the words "religious patrimony" with "spiritual élan".

This secularist agenda is dangerous: in neglecting Europe's Christian past, the committee is neglecting its future. Such radical secularism is fundamentally at odds with the attitude of the statesmen who, after the Second World War, created a social, economic, and political union: Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, and the French Prime Minister Robert Schuman. All were professing Catholics; Schuman is currently being considered for canonisation. Unsurprisingly, the committee's anti-Christian bias did not remain unchallenged. Several member states, led by Spain and Poland, in addition to religious parties across the continent, protested against this attempt to rewrite history.

Who, then is at the heart of this secularist drive? Mainly delegates from two countries: Belgium and France. The French tradition of laïcité dates from the eighteenth century and was confirmed in the revolutions of 1789 and 1848. It has been kept alive by the virulently anti-Christian "Grand Orient" lodge of French Freemasonry, to which a number of ministers in the governments of France and Belgium belong. This reflects the continuing tension felt in Belgium between the liberals and the Catholics, except that at the international level, the liberals seem to have won. President Jacques Chirac's ban on religious symbols, such as head-scarves or conspicuous crosses, in public schools is symptomatic of this approach.

On Democracy

It is true of all the countries in whatever geographical conception of Europe one chooses (whether it be that encompassed by the European Union, the Western European Union, the Council of Europe, or indeed the European Broadcasting Union) that they are democratic. Some may have a longer or stronger tradition of democratic governance than others, but all have regular elections. The question as to why democracy is so prevalent is perhaps more to do with economics and warfare than with any burning desire for greater political accountability.

Accession requirements to the EU and the WTO require certain fundamental requirements relating to democratic openness. Such economic endorsements are a very tempting 'carrot' to entice regimes to change into more accountable ones.

The so-called 'Democratic Peace Theory' suggests that functioning liberal democracies do not go to war with each other. When one country feels unthreatened by its neighbours, it is more capable of 'ever closer political union'; one cannot shake hands if one's hands are carrying sword and shield. Accession to NATO, for example, requires a high degree of democratic governmental control over the military. Ultimately, this can also be seen in economic terms: the maintenance of standing armed forces is expensive. The defence budgets of the members of the EU are all at a uniformly relatively low level.

A fundamental problem with the creation of a Union based on a shared Christian identity is that it would be inherently undemocratic. I believe that Religious and Political discourse should be kept separate; that whilst the former may inspire the latter, it should never dictate it. Grimm suggests that a collective identity can be based on other factors than simply a share ethnic heritage. One such additional factor would, in a European context, necessarily be democracy. Habermas goes further; for him collective identity 'must' be built on a shared experience of democratic methodologies.

The question as to why democracy is so important beyond the scope of this essay. I will however, express my agreement with Winston Churchill: "Democracy is the worst form of government apart from all the others".

On Human Rights

A common thread that now unites European countries, built on strong foundations—those of Greek culture, Roman law, Christian faith, and Enlightenment universalism—is the respect of human rights. No other international human rights regime is as strongly enforceable as the European Convention of Human Rights. Such respect has had a painful birth; the Genocide Convention (1948), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) are all born from the ashes of the Second World War in general, and the revelations of the Holocaust in particular.

Whist much was made of the "Common Foreign and Security Policy" as a pillar of the EU Temple, the only real common evidence of this can be found in the field of human rights. One might argue that the issue of Iranian nuclear disarmament achieved something that not even the best and brightest French and American diplomats could achieve: agreement between Presidents Bush and Chirac. I would argue that this should be folded into the general heading of human rights. Nuclear weapons, as illustrated in the Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons[1], cannot be used in a fashion which is compatible with the respect of the right to life, or the basic principles of International Humanitarian Law.

But this does not mean that any country that respects human rights is therefore European; New Zealand, for example, has a long tradition of anti-nuclear, pro-humanitarian advocacy. New Zealand is therefore more European in outlook, but not in geography. The respect for human rights forms part of the opinio juris needed to establish European identity, but is not the sum of such an identity. Belarus provides a good counter-example. It is the only geographically-European country not to be a party to the European Convention on Human Rights. It therefore may be geographically European, but it is institutionally not mentally European. I would therefore argue that the respect for human rights is a more fundamental criterion than is geography.

On Identity

Where does Europe, chastened by these lacerations stand now? Since the Second World War it has grown weary of the grand ideologies of the past, and has set itself to the modest task of preserving peace among the states, building an integrated economy and promoting cultural exchanges. The ideas that supported the earlier union of European states—Greek culture, Roman law, Christian faith, and Enlightenment universalism—have not as yet, played a primary role in the political and economic construction of a new Europe. Indeed, if the Europe of the future is to remain simply an economic-cultural body, then it does not even need such a "creation myth".

None of the past models seems suitable for our future. At present, any attempt to impose the unity-concept that has arguably lasted the longest and had most effectively contributed to the unification of Europe (but also at times its bloody disunity), namely that of a Christian commonwealth grounded in shared educational ideas, would only cause division. Whilst there is a uniting Christian backdrop to Europe, I do no believe that this identity is of sufficient 'thickness' to establish a Union based on it. Moreover, the rebirth of the medieval Res Publica Christiana would be undesirable; it was never hospitable to scientific development nor to outsiders, such as Jews or Muslims, who now constitute a sizeable segment of Europe's population.

I believe that religion, democracy, and human rights are all important to a European unity-identity, but in different ways. Religion provides a thin-identity; it is something we have in common, but it is not something that we share in an identical fashion. However, it is not a good foundation on which to build our future. Certainly our future should be inspired by it, but a Europe-wide theocracy is completely undesirable. On a more concrete level, the respect of human rights and the practice of democracy are much firmer foundations on which to construct a thick-identity.

One problem with trying to conceive of a 'European Identity', however, is that 'identities … often forged through oppositions to the identities of significant others, as the history of paired conflict so often demonstrates'[2]. Binary juxtapositions develop, the 'Other' being stereotyped as the shadow of the Self. I use of the Jungian term here to convey the concept of projection. Thus the assignation of the attribute 'civilised' to the Self—to take a very European example presupposes the assignation of, say, 'savage' to the 'Other'. Countless other oppositions suggest themselves. The dangers are obvious; they threaten the type of conflict that the 'European Project' seeks to avoid. Delanty claims that 'European identity is becoming a white bourgeois populism defined in opposition to the Muslim world and the Third World.'[3] In similar vein, Habermas writes of the 'chauvinism of prosperity'[4].

One example of this non-opposite form of identity can perhaps be seen on the battlefields of the First World War at Christmas. Men that had on the previous day been fighting and killing stopped fighting, deciding instead to share their rations, sing songs, and play football. Admittedly, the slaughter began again on the following day. Despite the political oppositions the tore Europe apart, this return to the Pax Christi suggests that there are still truths that bind us together as Europeans.

On the Nation-State

The question of identity is usually involved in discussions of nations and states. Having a sufficiently thick identity on which to found common institutions only seems necessary when one intends to base some kind of governance on them. There needs to be a demos (people) before it can have kratos (power). This in turn requires a belief that the current Westphalian system is somehow obsolete, or at least heading in that direction.

Whilst I believe that the days of the nation-state are indeed numbered, they are still not over. I agree with Habermas that there are certain threats to the nation-state, such as a globalised economy, and the security threat posed by non-state actors. Habermas assumes that a regional body is better suited to dealing with such threats.

The establishment of the Euro currency shows that even a regional financial system is still subject to the whims and fluctuations of global financial mechanisms. In terms of security problems, it seems very unlikely that a regional European actor would have the same military capability and reach as the United States of America (the combined defence budgets of all the current and future EU members would not even come close to the $350bn spent by the Americans per year). One need look no further than Afghanistan or Iraq to see the problems that the world's only remaining superpower is experiencing, despite its reach and power.

On Borders

The question of the geographic borders of Europe is a matter for cartographers and politicians as much as they are a matter of whim and fashion. The more interesting borders—those which bound the ideal-entity of Europe—are far more mobile, and far harder to pin down.

Whilst there is perhaps some geographical component to the nature of Europe, this requirement is mutable; for if European identity is primarily a metaphysical thing, it should perhaps not be constrained by geography.

Just as terms like "Developed" and "Undeveloped" are used to divide the world along economic lines, perhaps the term European can be used to denote cultural-social-ethical advancement. I find it hard to conceive of an opposite to the term European when it is used in this sense, as to articulate it would invariable cause offence. Such a term of identification must be used with caution, however, so as to avoid falling into the self-other dichotomy trap.


The European unity-identity is something like a tapestry; it has numerous threads not all of which are visible all the time. To ignore one thread or to focus overly much on another one would serve only to blind oneself to the over-all pattern. Christianity is certainly implicated, but perhaps to signify a type of thought rather than a necessarily Christian outlook.

Any nation or state that respects le souci de l'âme is potentially European. Any nation or state that respects law and learning is potentially European. Any nation or state that respects human rights and strives to uphold them is potentially European. These requirements also imply something about the nature of government; a democratic government has many weaknesses, but it remains the best way of safeguarding such concepts as the rule of law and the respect for human rights. The borders of Europe, then, are mutable and ever-expanding. The status of being European should be inspirational and aspirational rather than geographic and static.

[1]ICJ, 8 July 1996
[2] Anthony D. Smith "National Identity and the Idea of European Unity", International Affairs vol. 68 (1), 1992
[3] G. Delanty Inventing Europe, London: Macmillan, 1995
[4] J. Habermas "Citizenship and National Identity: Some Reflections on the Future of Europe", Praxis International vol. 12 (1), pp. 1–19
Copyright © Marcus Wischik 2004