German president Joachim Gauck recently made a good speech on the idea of Europe, and what it means to be European. Europe, he said, stands for “peace and freedom, for democracy and the rule of law, for equality, human rights and solidarity”. This is all true enough, and many others have made the same point. But if we are to move the debate about Europe forward, then we need to look more carefully at the qualities that are uniquely or quintessentially European.
Many other groups of people can claim the same qualities as those listed by the German president – not least among them Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, the Japanese, and anyone else who lives in a liberal democracy. In that sense, claiming these qualities as the main achievements of the European idea can only take us so far. We need instead to look at the qualities that Europeans have in common, that make them distinctive, and that really explain what the European idea is all about.
Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida took a game stab at this in the wake of the February 2003 demonstrations against the imminent invasion of Iraq. They declared the birth of a ‘European public sphere’, and a European ‘political mentality’ whose features included secularization, welfarism, multilateralism, and a preference for the peaceful resolution of international problems.
This was a good first attempt, but it did not go far enough. Partly inspired by them, I went into more depth on the meaning of Europe in my book Europeanism, published in 2010. Here is an executive summary of the qualities and values that I would argue truly represent what Europe means:
Perpetual peace. Europeans identify closely with a rejection of violence, war and conflict as a means of resolving disputes, and with the maintenance of perpetual peace. Europeans face external threats, to be sure, but they no longer threaten one another, nor do they pose a threat to others. The ordering of politics, economics and society in contemporary Europe has made inter-state war in the region—once all too frequent—all but unthinkable.
Civilian power. Europe is well armed and willing to use its military if needed, but it does not feel the need to use force or the threat of force to encourage change. Instead, Europeans emphasize the benefits of civilian power, focusing on non-military and mainly economic means to achieve goals, leaving the military as a residual safeguard, to be used mainly in peacekeeping rather than peacemaking, and emphasizing the importance of cooperation (rather than conflict) and of developing supranational structures to deal with critical international problems.
Cosmopolitanism. Europeans tend to associate themselves with universal ideas and with the belief that that all humans belong to a single moral community that transcends state boundaries or national identities. Local and global concerns cannot be separated or divorced, they would mainly argue, and rather than Europe or the world being separate from the community or state in which each of us lives, the importance of the universal trumps that of the local.
Communitarianism. In contrast to the liberal emphasis on individual rights, Europeans support a balance between individual and community interests, emphasizing the responsibilities of government to all those who live under its jurisdiction. Europeans are open to the idea that society may be a better judge of what is good for individuals rather than vice versa, and to the argument that the state occasionally has a role in restricting individual rights for the greater good of the community.
The collective society. Europeans tend to believe that societal divisions will occur in spite of attempts to ensure equal opportunity, and accept the role of the state as an economic manager and as a guarantor of societal welfare. The hold of social democracy remains strong in Europe, nowhere more so than in expectations regarding the advantages of government regulation of the business sector, and of the public delivery of social services.
Welfarism. Europeans tend to believe that while individual endeavour is to be welcomed, applauded and rewarded, the community—via the state—has a responsibility for working to ensure that the playing field is as level as possible, and that opportunity and wealth are equitably distributed. Europeans emphasize communal responsibilities and public welfare, are ready to criticize capitalism as the source of many social ills, have a broad conception of the idea of individual rights (believing that all should enjoy access to education, health care, and social security), and emphasize equality of results over equality of opportunity.
Multiculturalism. Europe has a long and often overlooked tradition of multiculturalism arising from the diversity of European societies, and a European habit of integrating core values and features from new groups with which its dominant cultures have come into contact. Given the myths that surround much of what is regarded as national culture, it is difficult any more to be sure what constitutes a feature of the home culture and what does not. The arrival in Europe of new groups in the postwar era has continued to build upon the tradition of multiculturalism, and has added new layers of complexity to the definition of the home culture. Racism and religious discrimination, however, have not gone away.
Secularism. While religion continues to grow in most of the rest of the world, in Europe its role is increasingly marginalized: church attendance has fallen, expressions of faith have become more uncommon, agnosticism and atheism are more openly and widely admitted, religion plays only a marginal role in politics and public life, and secularism drives Europeanist attitudes towards science and towards public policies in which religious belief plays a role, including abortion and euthanasia.