Acton Commentary

Europe's Amnesic Anniversary


This week, much of Europe was in party mode. March 26 marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome — the beginning of a formal integration of Europe that manifests itself today as the European Union.

Given 20th-century Europe's tortured history as the epicenter of two World Wars, the incubator of murderous ideologies such as Marxism and National Socialism, and the site of the extermination of six million Jews, 50 years of post-war peaceful trade is understandably an occasion for celebration.

Judging from the number of state-initiated festivities across the continent, Europe's political-bureaucratic classes certainly believed some official merriment was in order. Perhaps this contemporary instance of bread-and-circuses (manifested in odd combinations such as Berlin's extension of museum opening-hours and government-sponsored “raves”) was considered necessary, given the general absence of spontaneous rejoicing on the part of Europe's citizens.

Not all contemporary Eurocrats, however, are convinced that all is well. Senior figures such as former European Commission president Jacques Delors and former EU president Jean-Claude Juncker have described the European project as presently undergoing its worst crisis.

Delors and Juncker have in mind the stalled process of constitutional integration, killed off by French and Dutch voters in 2005. Brussels is now unlikely to re-foist the now infamous 511-page constitutional-treaty on Europeans. More probable is a stealth strategy of gradual changes that centralize more power in Brussels with ratification coming from tame legislatures rather than the less-predictable method of popular referenda.

The EU's difficulty is that whatever happens at the political-constitutional level, it is unlikely to address two grave issues confronting Europe as it lurches into the future.

The first problem is the EU's on-going economic malaise. While Europeans are generally good at running established businesses, numerous reports commissioned by the EU itself underscore Europe's relative dearth of entrepreneurial activity compared, for example, to China and India.

Though 2006 was one of the EU's better economic years, this followed a long decade of rising unemployment and growth-stagnation. This is now endangering Social Europe's alleged ability to realize its promise of economic security for all. Thus a higher percentage of people live in poverty in Sweden — the erstwhile Social Democrat paradise — than in America.

The EU's ambitious economic liberalization “Lisbon Agenda” has gone nowhere. Attempts at even minor reforms are routinely greeted with strident political opposition from left and right, loud accusations of “neo-liberalism” (whatever that means), and street protests before, almost on cue, the government caves in.

Symbolic of this inertia is the fact that over half the EU's annual budget is still consumed by its Common Agricultural Policy. These subsidies serve the political end of protecting European farmers from foreign competition, especially from developing nations about whom the EU claims to be so concerned.

At an even deeper level, however, the EU has a severe case of cultural amnesia. And no one has been more direct in underlining this than Pope Benedict XVI. As Benedict politely but firmly stated in a recent address commemorating the Treaty of Rome, identity is about memory. Just as individuals cannot understand themselves without knowing where they have been and what they have done, neither can nations and cultures.

Put another way, the Pope's point was this: People who suffer from amnesia have great difficulty making sound choices about the future because they do not know where they have come from. The same is true for Europe.

This does not mean Benedict believes you must be a convinced, practicing Christian to be truly European. He is merely asking that the European project recognize facts about Europe's development: that Christianity's unique synthesis of Jewish wisdom, Greek reason, and Roman law was decisive for Europe's civilizational development; that Christian scholar-statesmen such as Thomas More made indispensable contributions to the cause of liberty from absolutism; that capitalism's emergence in Christian Europe was not accidental; that even the French Revolution's slogan of liberté, égalité, fraternité is incomprehensible without Christianity's influence on these concepts.

All this is presently anathema to most European establishment opinion — but not all. Reflecting on Europe's Christian heritage, no less than Jürgen Habermas — self-described “methodological atheist” and German philosophical doyen of twentieth-century European progressivism — wrote in 2004, “To this day we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.”

Unfortunately “post-modern chatter” has become the lingua franca in much of Europe, especially among Brussels' political apparatchiks. Their determination to ignore the bulk of Europe's pre-Rousseau past does not augur well for their ability to positively shape the EU's next 50 years.

By no means should the EU be hostage to Europe's past, which contains more than its share of darkness. But surely an accurate appreciation of Europe's roots is more likely to make the EU less ambiguous about its future.