Last week, 26 years after Pope John Paul II addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Pope Francis went there to deliver a shrewd diagnosis of its problems and opportunities.  “At the heart of this ambitious political project was confidence in man, not so much as a citizen or an economic agent, but in man, in men and women as persons endowed with transcendent dignity,” the Pope said. It was a call for the EU to return to its original inspiration. He even told the politicians that they can turn Europe into a “precious point of reference” for all humanity.

Robert Schuman (1886-1963), the French statesman who was the main architect of the European unification project, would have loved this. The Pope’s words update his own message for European unification. The pivotal role of man with his transcendence at the core of the Pope’s speech was also Schuman’s vision for European integration. Schuman worked for political integration through economic cooperation, but always at the service of man and his transcendence.

Effective solidarity beyond borders would be its logical consequence, also because he considered the spiritual and cultural European heritage the real raison d’être for uniting European countries in a brotherhood of nations.

Schuman and the other founding fathers of the EU proved that this was possible. They succeeded in changing the post-war desire for revenge into reconciliation. By creating the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 (which evolved into the EU) they changed the centuries-long catalyst for war between Germany and France, the riches of Alsace-Lorraine, into a reason for peace and brotherhood. This paradigm shift has brought about Europe’s longest period of peace among the EU’s member states since Charlemagne’s sons carved up Europe at the Treaty of Verdun in 843.   

Dignity and transcendence

It is clear that human dignity and human transcendence were and are key concepts which shape all of EU policy. But the Pope suggests that the EU has diverged somewhat from its original inspiration.

Naturally the Pope praised the European Union’s focus on human rights. But he made a significant caveat: “it is vital to develop a culture of human rights which wisely links the individual, or better, the personal aspect, to that of the common good, of the ‘all of us’ made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society. In fact, unless the rights of each individual are harmoniously ordered to the greater good, those rights will end up being considered limitless and consequently will become a source of conflicts and violence.”

The Pope singled out one of the EU’s ideals, solidarity. “To speak of transcendent human dignity thus means appealing to human nature, to our innate capacity to distinguish good from evil, to that ‘compass’ deep within our hearts, (…) In my view, one of the most common diseases in Europe today is the loneliness typical of those who have no connection with others. This is especially true of the elderly, who are often abandoned to their fate, and also in the young who lack clear points of reference and opportunities for the future. It is also seen in the many poor who dwell in our cities and in the disorientation of immigrants who came here seeking a better future.”

Fighting isolation and anomie was another of Schuman’s ideals as well. He once said, “We shall have to replace all the tendencies inherited from the past with the notion of solidarity, that is to say the conviction that the real interest of all lies in acknowledging and accepting the interdependency of all. Egoism does not pay any more.” As early as 1913 he stressed the need for the intellectual formation of the people so as to fight the immense self-centredness that dominated society and to prevent the poor from falling into despair and radicalism.   

Smothering Europe’s Christian soul

The Pope’s remarks about an ageing, sclerotic Europe have been widely reported. “As the European Union has expanded, there has been growing mistrust on the part of citizens towards institutions considered to be aloof, engaged in laying down rules perceived as insensitive to individual peoples, if not downright harmful. In many quarters we encounter a general impression of weariness and aging, of a Europe which is now a ‘grandmother’, no longer fertile and vibrant. As a result, the great ideas which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction, only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions.”

Schuman foresaw this. He warned that the European unification project could lose sight of its soul and turn into a mere technical and economic enterprise. In his own time, faced with the dehumanizing threat of Communism, he stressed the need to nurture the common spiritual and cultural heritage of European states. Unfortunately, he could not possibly have foreseen the dechristianisation of Europe and the aggressive secularism which has followed it.

Pope Francis offers a diagnosis and a remedy. Christianity “does not represent a threat to the secularity of states or to the independence of the institutions of the European Union, but rather an enrichment. This is clear from the ideals which shaped Europe from the beginning, such as peace, subsidiarity and reciprocal solidarity, and a humanism centred on respect for the dignity of the human person.”

Pope Francis even goes as far as to assert that “a Europe which is capable of appreciating its religious roots and of grasping their fruitfulness and potential, will be all the more immune to the many forms of extremism spreading in the world today, not least as a result of the great vacuum of ideals which we are currently witnessing in the West, since ‘it is precisely man’s forgetfulness of God, and his failure to give him glory, which gives rise to violence’”[i].

Schuman saw in Europe’s spiritual and cultural heritage the very soul of the European unification project. It had to be constantly nurtured in order to be able to feed its “body”. The Pope’s concluding words, to which Schuman would fully subscribe, are:

“Dear Members of the European Parliament, the time has come to work together in building a Europe which revolves not around the economy, but around the sacredness of the human person, around inalienable values. In building a Europe which courageously embraces its past and confidently looks to its future in order fully to experience the hope of its present. The time has come for us to abandon the idea of a Europe which is fearful and self-absorbed, in order to revive and encourage a Europe of leadership, a repository of science, art, music, human values and faith as well. A Europe which contemplates the heavens and pursues lofty ideals. A Europe which cares for, defends and protects man, every man and woman. A Europe which bestrides the earth surely and securely, a precious point of reference for all humanity!”

It is a stirring challenge. Is the European Union up to it?

Margriet Krijtenburg is a lecturer at the Academy of European Studies, University of The Hague, where she is also a researcher in the Faculty of Law . Her doctoral thesis has been published under the title, “Schuman’s Europe: his frame of reference” (Leiden University Press, 2012).

Margriet Krijtenburg studied Spanish philology at the University of Utrecht and wrote her doctoral thesis in Salamanca about the Spanish philosopher and writer Unamuno. To understand his thoughts...