“Charles de Gaulle and plenty of others had another vision of Europe—a Europe that knew its roots and believed that it had concrete content to offer the rest of the world. Much of that content is reflective of Europe’s genuine plurality, which EU bureaucrats routinely gloss over.”
In his Mémoires d’Espoir, the leader of Free France during World War II and the founder of the Fifth Republic, General Charles de Gaulle, wrote at length about a subject on many people’s minds today—Europe. Though often portrayed as passionately French to the point of incorrigibility, de Gaulle was, in his own way, quintessentially European.
For de Gaulle, however, Europe wasn’t primarily about supranational institutions like the European Commission or the European Central Bank, let alone what some European politicians vaguely call “democratic values.” To de Gaulle’s mind, Europe was essentially a spiritual and cultural heritage, one worthy of emulation by others. Europe’s nations, de Gaulle wrote, had “the same Christian origins and the same way of life, linked to one another since time immemorial by countless ties of thought, art, science, politics and trade.”
On this basis, de Gaulle considered it “natural” that these nations “should come together to form a whole, with its own character and organization in relation to the rest of the world.” However, de Gaulle also believed that without clear acknowledgment and a deep appreciation of these common civilizational foundations, any pan-European integration would run aground.
Today’s European crisis reflects the enduring relevance of de Gaulle’s insight. This is true not only regarding the quasi-religious faith that some Europeans place in the type of supranational bureaucracies that drew de Gaulle’s ire. It also applies to the inadequacies of the vision that informs their trust in such institutions. Until Europe’s leaders recognize this problem, it is difficult to see how the continent can avoid further decline, whether as a player on the global stage or as societies that offer something distinctly enriching to the rest of the world.
Economics, Migration, and Values
In our time, three phenomena tend to come to mind when considering Europe’s contemporary problems. One is the economic difficulties troubling not only small European nations, such as Greece and Portugal, but also large countries, such as Italy and France. The second is the influx of migrants likely to continue sweeping across Europe’s borders over the next few years. As the Paris atrocities have demonstrated, no amount of political correctness can disguise the fact that the migration issue cannot be separated from the problem of Islamist terrorism. And that raises a third matter, which is on everyone’s mind but which few European leaders seem willing to address in any comprehensive way: is the Islamic religion, taken on its own terms, compatible with the values and institutions of Western culture?
Not far beneath the surface of these issues are important cultural questions. In his book Mass Flourishing, Nobel prize-winning economist Edmund Phelps has illustrated how certain value commitments and the ways in which they become institutionalized have helped shape national and supranational European structures that prioritize, for instance, economic security through the state over liberty, creativity, and risk-taking. This is one reason why many European politicians, business leaders, and trade unions regularly invoke words like “solidarity” when opposing economically liberalizing reforms. The notion that solidarity can be realized by means other than extensive regulation apparently escapes them.
Similarly, the fact that most of the migrants presently surging into Europe come from religious-cultural contexts quite different from Europe’s own historical roots has inevitably led many to wonder whether some of these migrants can—or are willing to—integrate themselves into European societies that presumably want to remain distinctly Western in their values and institutions. Since the 1960s, many migrants to nations such as Sweden, Belgium, and France have not assimilated. In some cases, they live almost extra-territorial existences, as anyone who has visited les banlieues of cities like Brussels, Lille, or Stockholm knows. To enter the Brussels district of Molenbeek, from where at least one of the Paris terrorists came, is to pass into a different world: one of drugs, unemployment, and, above all, radical jihadist sentiments.
One reason why de Gaulle let French Algeria go in the early 1960s was that he was unconvinced that France could successfully integrate several million North African Muslims and remain a cohesive Western society. The demonstrable failures of various multicultural policies in many Western European countries since that time underscore that he had a point.
What Roots, Whose Roots?
An even deeper question raised by these issues concerns what precisely Europe’s leaders are asking migrants to integrate themselves into and why migrants should bother to do so.
In recent years, somewhat unlikely figures such as Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and France’s Socialist Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve have described their nations as historically Christian countries. Looking across the political spectrum, however, most European politicians—especially in Western Europe—avoid such language. Instead, one typically hears expressions such as “the democratic constitutional state,” “tolerance,” “human rights,” “common European home,” and “pluralism.” Much of this terminology is associated with what the secular German philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls the project of “political liberalism,” which he describes as “a species of “Kantian republicanism.”