English medieval collage, including stained glass from York Minster, and Salisbury Cathedral. British Museum / Wikimedia

Brexit Day has arrived and at 11pm Britain will leave the European Union, a break decided by a plebiscite back in June 2016. In practical terms, nothing much will change while Boris Johnson’s government hammers out Britain’s future relationship with the EU regarding trade and migration – supposedly by the end of the year.

But this “divorce,” as it is regularly called, has changed the mood in Europe. While cheering up British “leavers” and their European sympathisers, it has made a lot of Brits unhappy and seems to have cast a certain gloom over continental neighbours. At the European Parliament in Brussels on Thursday, reports AP, “some [MEPs] even cried and many held hands during a mournful rendition of … Auld Lang Syne”.

It is always sad to see a union, even an economic and political one, disintegrate – unless it was a forced one like the “Union” of Soviet Socialist Republics, whose end few people regret. Unity is a good in itself, but it has to respect freedom and identity, and it has to be about something deeper than prosperity or power. A successful union has to be based on shared fundamental values and the virtues that express those values.

According to some critics, the EU has not respected the freedom and identity of member states but has become an imperial and bureaucratic system that regulates everything from the labour force to laying hens, while failing to tackle serious problems like immigration or the increasing dominance of China. Immigration was certainly a big issue in the Brexit vote, and people in the poorer regions of the UK feel they have suffered from globalisation.

At the level of identity and values many, not only in the UK, also feel alienated by the social liberalism of the European elite and their promotion of multiculturalism and newfangled sexual rights. These things have contributed to a sense, among some of the English at least, that they are losing their national identity – a feeling that has only been encouraged by the “America first” policy of President Donald Trump.

To crown it all, the EU is not doing very well economically compared with China and America and, according to one commentator, even France and Germany are agreed that the union is “totally sidelined on the world stage.” It is making the “products of yesteryear” (Scotch Whiskey? Petrol-driven cars?) and buying today’s – like Huawei’s 5G technology – from China and America.

Of course, it was not meant to be like this.

European unification was born in a Europe devastated and impoverished by World War II. The aim of its chief architect, French statesman Robert Schuman, was to bring about lasting peace and security through economic integration leading to political integration.

According to Schuman, says Margriet Krijtenburg, a scholar of European unification, “integration should proceed by small steps so that l’Europe d’esprit [the spiritual Europe] that is at its base could be internalised by its citizens and would be consistent with the human psyche. Unification would take several generations, he thought.”

In a Declaration of May 1950 Schuman highlighted four key principles to guide unification:

* Reconciliation, in the first place between the arch-enemies France and Germany.

* Effective solidarity, based on keeping man, understood as a spiritual and social being, at the heart of all undertakings. The first of these undertakings would be to use coal and steel, formerly instruments of war between France and Germany, as instruments of peace.

* Equality between the partners in this peace project.

* Subsidiarity and supranationality. According to these principles the central agencies of the union would only act when needed, and then in a way consistent with the common good of Europe and the rest of humanity – especially Africa. Otherwise states could look after their own affairs.

Dr Krijtenburg, whose doctoral thesis was on Schuman, concedes that these principles have not always been honoured, partly because its leaders have not adhered to Schuman’s vision of man as a spiritual and social being. As a result, people have become instruments of the economy (even if it means unemployment and poverty as in the post-GFC period for Greece, Spain and others) instead of the other way around.

Nevertheless, she believes that the EU can and should be reformed, rather than let Europeans retreat into a nationalism that would eclipse their common cultural heritage and leave countries even more exposed to the big guns of globalisation.

On the other hand, writes Spanish Professor of Constitutional Law Antonio-Carlos Pereira Menaut, if the EU does not change, European integration may become irrelevant. “China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative could turn us into a medium-sized Eurasian peninsula centred in Beijing.”

The question is, does the European governing class and its bureaucracy even understand concepts like subsidiarity and man as a spiritual being, let alone sympathise with them? Without them it does not seem possible to reconcile European integration with national sentiment, or foster the spiritual and moral traditions that Schuman, a devout Catholic, presupposed in his vision of a united Europe.

Schuman himself, who died in 1963 when the main threat to Europe was Communism, warned that the unification project could lose its soul and turn into a mere technical and economic enterprise. He stressed the need to nurture the common spiritual and cultural heritage of European states. But, as Dr Krijtenburg has pointed out, he “could not possibly have foreseen the dechristianisation of Europe and the aggressive secularism which has followed it.”

That aggressive secularism was an ingredient in opposition to the mention of God and Christianity in the ill-fated Constitution of 2004. It referred only to Europe’s “Religious and Humanist inheritance”. Before it was finally replaced by the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007, and while she was EU President, Angela Merkel, encouraged by Pope Benedict XVI, stuck her neck out in calling for the Christian roots of Europe to be acknowledged in the charter. “No one doubts that they significantly shape our life, our society,” the chancellor said. “I wonder, can we maintain the formative aspects of Christianity for day-to-day politics if the political sphere does not stand by them?”

In other words, if you think political behaviour is bad with Christianity, wait until you see it without.

Of course, the Europe of the 21st century is not that of the 1960s. The resurgence of Islam, the application of Turkey to join the EU, the millions of Muslims who have immigrated to European countries or, more recently, arrived there as refugees – all these things have put religion centre-stage in a new way, but at the expense of the faith that, together with the legal and administrative legacy of ancient Rome, actually created Europe, and is nominally the faith of around 70 percent of Europeans today.

In his book, Europe and the Faith, published exactly 100 years ago, the British-French Catholic writer and historian Hilaire Belloc argued (against Protestant historians) that “The Church is Europe and Europe is The Church” – and he meant the Catholic Church. Only the “Catholic conscience” could make sense of the First World War, or the rest of European history for that matter, because it was the Church that, building on the legacy of the Roman Empire, made Europe, as Christendom. (And it was England, by the way, that dealt the fatal blow to Christendom by embracing Protestantism.) “Europe must return to the Faith, or she will perish,” Belloc concluded emphatically.

That may well sound outlandish today, despite the evidence – an infertile, ageing, lonely and discontented population – that Europe is indeed perishing. Anything is possible, but the closest Europe is likely to come to returning to the Catholic faith in the foreseeable future is taking Schuman’s principles of solidarity and subsidiarity seriously.

Speaking last year on the need for Europe to acknowledge its nations as people’s basic form of “belonging,” the recently deceased British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton argued that in today’s democratic states religion, though it is a vital part of human heritage and must be given freedom, cannot be the basis of that belonging, since there are different faiths. Rather, the “we” of a shared identity has to be the nation state, which he described thus:

“The nation state as we now conceive it is the by-product of human neighbourliness, shaped from the countless agreements between people who speak the same language and live side by side. It results from compromises established after many conflicts and expresses the slowly forming agreement among neighbours, both to grant each other space and to protect that space as common territory.

“It has consciously absorbed and adjusted to the ethnic and religious minorities within its territory, as they in turn have adjusted to the nation state. It depends on localised customs and a shared routine of tolerance. Its law is territorial rather than religious and invokes no source of authority higher than the intangible assets that its people share. It is the nation state, so conceived, that defines the primary goal of conservative politics in our time.

This may be the best Europe, or any of us can hope for at the moment, but it remains to be seen whether humans can get along together and flourish for long under such limited authority (the subtitle of Belloc’s book is “Sine auctoritate nulla vita” – which I translate as, without authority there is no life.) Won’t some “authority,” not necessarily benign, simply grasp the reins?

The Economist today puts forward a strategic vision for Boris Johnson and post-Brexit Britain.

“That vision should be based on liberalism. The belief in freedom as the underpinning of civilisation, in the state as the servant of the individual rather than vice versa, and in the open exchange of goods, services and opinions, arose in Britain. It fits naturally with a national character which suspects authority and tends towards pragmatism rather than idealism. It underpinned the country’s progress in the 19th and 20th centuries and spread to become the world’s dominant political philosophy. But it is now under threat, not least in Britain.”

But isn’t the world’s dominant political philosophy, with its individualism, suspicion of authority (except its own) and lack of idealism precisely the thing that has made the European Union inhospitable to many ordinary people, not least in Britain?

Without Schuman’s fundamentally spiritual and moral vision, the key to political health and harmony seems elusive. Europe needs to rediscover its soul.

* This article has been changed to reflect the fact that Turkey is not yet a member of the EU.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet