Writing in 1751 Voltaire described Europe as “a kind of great republic, divided into several states, some monarchical, the others mixed but all corresponding with one another. They all have the same religious foundation, even if divided into several confessions. They all have the same principles of public law and politics unknown in other parts of the world.”
Sixty-nine years ago, on January 1st, in a way that Charlemagne, Voltaire, William Penn and Gladstone, the early advocates of European unity, could only dream, a united Europe became a possibility with the creation of the European Iron and Steel Community by Germany, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. Since then it has matured from the first six founding members to the European Union of today with a membership of 27 countries, with most of them sharing a single currency.
War, time and time again, has interrupted the pursuit of harmony and togetherness on the continent of Europe. Continued civil and international war across the centuries, has pitted French against Germans, British against the French, Spanish and Germans, Russians against French and Germans, Czechs against Poles, Spaniards against Spaniards, Gentiles against Jews, reaching its dreadful climax in World War 2. As Jan Morris, who died just before Christmas, wrote in her superb work, “Fifty Years of Europe”, “great cities lay in ruin, bridges were broken, roads and railways were in chaos. Conquerors from East and West flew their ensigns above the seats of old authority, and proud populations would do almost anything for a pack of cigarettes or some nylon stockings. Europe was in shock, powerless, discredited and degraded”. Over the ages no other continent has been the scene of so much war.
Many, if not most, of that generation wondered in 1945 if they’d ever see Europe again in any state of grace or glory, much less unified.
The fact that the urge to bury the hatchet and forge common institutions has come so far in such a short time against such a background is the twentieth and twenty first century’s greatest political achievement of anywhere in the world. (Following the Declaration of Independence it took the US nearly 90 years to establish a fully mature common currency; Europe has travelled the same course in 40 years.)
Yet this astonishing triumphal time in the history of mankind begs the question, what is the glue that holds it all together? After all what is Europe? Geographically, it is no more than a peninsula protruding from the landmass of Asia. Culturally, it has always been a potage of languages, peoples and traditions. Politically, it is a moveable feast- of the 35 sovereign states in post “Iron Curtain” Europe nine have been created or resurrected since World War 2. Humanly, it should include Russia and, hopefully, one day it will.
It is religion, not politics nor economic and monetary union that through the ages has made Europe one, held it together through its vicissitudes (many, tragically, of religious origin) and provided the common morality and common identity that make a union and single currency possible today and political union a tangible, if still hotly debated, goal tomorrow. And one should not overlook that the Russia of today is essentially part of that Christian inheritance.
Broadcasting to a defeated Germany in 1945, the great poet T.S. Elliot reminded his audience that despite the war and “the closing of Europe’s mental frontiers because of an excess of nationalism it is in Christianity that our arts have developed, it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe – until recently – have been rooted. An individual European may not believe the Christian faith is true; and yet what he says, and makes, and does, will depend on the Christian heritage for its meaning.”
One can ask what do the contemporary cults of finance, sports, much television and radio, pop culture, eroticism and the internet have to do with a Christian heritage? Nevertheless, despite all, the fact is through changing fashions, through wars big and small, the idea of Europe that persists is essentially Christian. On its own, economic self-interest never would have created monetary union. Economic and monetary union has been driven all along by men and women who were essentially idealistic and visionary, even if not practicing Christians. From Jean Monnet, the founder of modern Europe, to Helmut Schmidt, Valery Giscard D’Estaing, Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, the founders and creators of the Euro, the urge to remove the causes of belligerency and to form institutions that would further the development of a common democracy has been a central purpose.
Europe is not first and foremost a political concept or a financial convenience. The Brexiteers (i.e. those British who voted against staying in the EU) have never understood that for probably a majority of Europeans, including the British, it is an ideal. Thus it will never be complete. We will work at it all our lives, as will future generations. Indeed Brexit in one way may be a good thing for the other members. The present Brexit crisis may come to be seen, in retrospect, as the defining moment when political union takes its place at the top of the European agenda. No longer is there the drag of a reticent Britain always ready to slow and sometimes sabotage forward movement. This is the silver lining in the cloud of Brexit.