Europe's Secular Mission

Economics and politics have been uneasy allies in the process of European unification. From the moment Europe's coal and steel industries were merged in an effort to prevent future wars on the Continent, the "European project" has often relied on economic interests to propel itself forward. Now, however, new members mostly join for political and geo-strategic reasons. This change in motivation requires changes in how the Union thinks about itself, changes that go beyond the ideas now circulating at the convention drawing up an EU constitution.

Of course, the economic prosperity that European unification has delivered undoubtedly lures new members, but the EU's attraction extends far beyond pocketbook issues. For the Union is also a huge area ruled by law, some concerning production and commercial exchange, but also others that establish and protect individual rights.

Support Project Syndicate’s mission

Project Syndicate needs your help to provide readers everywhere equal access to the ideas and debates shaping their lives.

Learn more

Because of this, the EU's neighbors have felt magnetically attracted to this area of peace and prosperity. The first enlargement, in 1973, brought in Great Britain, Ireland, and Denmark, and was based mostly on economic considerations. But all successive waves of enlargement were motivated mostly, if not exclusively, by political reasons.

Greece provides a good example. After the dictatorship of the colonels, Greece sought international rehabilitation through membership in the European Community, whose imprimatur in turn helped to consolidate the fragile new democratic regime. The modernizing transformation now taking place in Greece owes much to the country's EU membership.

Much the same is true for Spain and Portugal. Rejected while they were still fascist dictatorships, their candidacies were accepted when their regimes changed. As with Greece, democratic consolidation was at stake. Indeed, from the economic point of view, entry into Europe, and having to compete with the powerful economies of Germany or France, was risky, but it was a necessary condition for securing their democracies.

The inclusion of the next three next countries--Sweden, Finland, and Austria--posed fewer economic problems. They sought membership mostly for geostrategic reasons: to consolidate their security. Neutrality prevented them from becoming candidates so long as the Soviet Union existed. Once the Soviet Union's demise made it possible, they joined.

The motivation of the candidates who will join in 2004 is analogous. Only Malta is a case in which the major interest in membership--access to the great common market--is economic. For Cyprus, membership is, above all, a means to unblock the stalemate between the island's Turkish and Greek communities. As for the eight countries recently freed from Soviet domination, their priority is democratic consolidation. The three Baltic states and Slovenia also want to entrench their recently revived national identities.

To be sure, the EU's potential to induce economic dynamism, best seen in Ireland and Greece, attracts new members. But the Iraq crisis provided East European countries with an opportunity to confirm the absolute priority they place on strategic stability, which is why they put relations with the US ahead of worries about European political solidarity.

So the following question arises. Although it is logical that all Europeans want to give a strong institutional basis to Europe's definitive and everlasting peace, and that we pragmatically unite our markets, these imperatives are insufficient to energize a Union with 25 members. A deeper shared purpose is needed.

Right now, Europe has set its sight on political bonds that will be, for some time, impossible to establish. Our 25 nations have profoundly different historical experiences, geographical situations, and strategic sensibilities. So today's most hyped goal--conceiving and putting into practice a common foreign policy--seems too ambitious to succeed. One can bemoan this fact, but it is better to accommodate oneself to it and accept the notion that it will take decades for Europe to think in the same way on most issues, not least about relations with the US.

But this does not take anything away from the extraordinary community constituted by the intellectual and cultural patrimony that unites Europeans around recognized and accepted values. It is here that Europe has a purpose it can rally around--a message that can resonate powerfully in a world riven by religious intolerance and fanaticism.

Many of Europe's values--respect for human life, the desire to protect the weak and the oppressed, equal treatment of women, the commitment to the rule of law--arose in the course of a long history in which the influence of Christianity was very significant. But Europe also found a productive balance between church and state.

In Europe, sovereignty belongs to the people and does not flow from a transcendent power. Liberty of thought is absolute, as is religious freedom. Women do not suffer some divinely mandated inferior status vis-à-vis men. Political representation must be pluralistic. Public powers should not depend or refer to any religious authority.

All these values are accepted pillars of political and institutional stability in today's Europe, and command nearly unanimous agreement. They were extracted from the churches, not granted by them. This part of our patrimony comes from the Enlightenment, and grows out of the old struggle for the triumph of Reason.

To deepen this set of our values, to test to what extent they are shared is the necessary condition for generating new values and for giving our Union the identity and cohesion that will one day permit us to propose Europe's secular values to the rest of the world.