The idea of Europe began in the minds of its peoples – its philosophers, scholars, artists, religious and political leaders. And so did its wars. Historically, attempts to unify Europe were made through a series of brutal conflicts, culminating with the horrors of World War II. A vision of a peaceful, united Europe was embraced by the war’s survivors and witnesses as a defence against this historical cycle of violence.
On March 25, Europe marks the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the moment in 1957 which brought the European Economic Community into being between Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany. Its modern-day successor, the European Union, must remain rooted in its founding principles.
The EU is celebrating six decades of socio-economic solidarity. Speaking in 1950, Robert Schuman, a former French prime minister and one of the architects of the EU – stated that Europe would be “built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity”.
Solidarity commonly refers to something abstract and exalted, a state of mind anchored in a sentiment of unity, akin to fellowship, team spirit or esprit de corps. This notion of solidarity is at the centre of the European project and its integration process – created as a direct response to the nationalist rivalries that led to World War II.
For the founding fathers, this vision of unity had to start with pragmatic solutions to rebuild Europe and give hope to its peoples after 1945. In 1953, at a European Round Table on Europe’s Spiritual and Cultural Unity, Schuman stressed that Europe’s leaders also needed to define the cultural and spiritual ethos underpinning how they addressed Europe’s problems.
He believed in Europe’s mission to become great again and to serve not just itself but the world in general. Inspired by a “consciousness of European unity, common destiny, obstacles and tasks to be fulfilled”, the creation of supranational institutions for a united Europe was seen as the way this could happen.
However, for a peaceful, united Europe, Schuman pointed out the need to combat what he called the état d’esprit contraire (a contrary state of mind) which had characterised the European nation-states’ antagonistic mentality. To him, the attachment to national sovereignty led to a culture of separation, hegemony and superiority. This, he believed, gave rise to political nationalism, protectionism, cultural isolationism, mistrust, resentment and hatred. This “contrary spirit” needed to be substituted by the notion of solidarity, which Schuman defined as the meeting of “fraternity and the instinct of enlightened conservation”.
A European state of mind
Solidarity is not merely about supranational institutions and policies to create a single common market. It is also a spiritual expression of an intent to transcend the ideological, cultural and religious traditions that have historically been used to divide (and at times conquer) Europe – and which are also the foundations of Europe’s civilisation. This is acknowledged as the Union’s spiritual and moral heritage in the preamble of its Charter of Fundamental Rights. The EU is therefore not just a collection of states: it is a state of mind.
The EU’s founding fathers, including Alcide De Gasperi, Altiero Spinelli, Denis de Rougemont and Schuman, argued throughout the 1950s and 1960s that European unity should be a union of minds – a spiritual venture embodied by the notion of solidarity and the common yet diverse cultural heritage of its member states. In a 1992 speech to the European Churches, Jacques Delors, the then-president of the European Commission, reasserted this by stating:
If in the next ten years we haven’t managed to give a soul to Europe, to give it spirituality and meaning, the game will be up.
Today, Europe’s economic and refugee crises, the rise of nationalist sentiments across the bloc, and Brexit are testing the EU’s resolve to remain on the path of united solidarity.
This is not a test of survival but one of faith. Europe together works. United in diversity, it nurtures its commonalities and the differences of its peoples, national identities, languages, traditions and histories. Its strength is in its cooperation, dialogue and mutual respect.
With Brexit negotiations about to begin, it is essential to keep all eyes on the prize: peace. So far, a united and diverse Europe has been pretty good at this. As the current European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker reiterated in early March in a white paper on the future of Europe, form follows function when it comes to the EU. The means to achieve peace through unity can vary – the Euro Area, Schengen Area, a European Free Trade Association. These forms of European unity achieve the same function: they ensure peace through a degree of solidarity among member states working for common interests via common action.
The shape of UK-EU relations after Brexit should reflect this spirit of solidarity to achieve a mutually beneficial form of unity. The UK is leaving the EU construct, it is not leaving Europe. Negotiations should be conducted in the spirit of cooperation, community and, of course, solidarity, in order to keep the peace.