In Euro We Trust: Are European institutions the secular descendants of the medieval Church?

“The Crown of Immortality” (Swedish House of Knights fresco).

I’m currently reading Robert Bartlett’s The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350, which describes the spread of Frankish civilization and Latin Christendom from the French-West German-North Italian core to the rest of what is today Catholic-Protestant Europe. The borders of that world, with the notable exceptions of Orthodox Bulgaria and Romania, almost perfectly overlap with the current membership of the European Union. The parallels with the EU, and to some extent NATO, are striking.

With the collapse of Charlemagne’s empire, you were stuck with the chaos of warring States and fiefdoms. And yet, the various Frankish aristocrats of this area decided to preserve the Papacy as the supreme authority over their churches, with a common language (Latin), doctrine and lithurgy. The Franks (i.e. Franco-Germans) were so strong military and so dynamic generally that most of the neighboring European elites copied their prestigious customs, laws and martial techniques (heavy knights, sieges weapons).

The sway of Latin Christendom spread. Either by the sword through various crusades against pagans and Muslims as in Iberia, the Baltic countries and (temporarily) in the Levant. Or, more ambiguously, by the conversion of elites, with the kingdoms of Hungary, Poland, Scandinavia and elsewhere deeming they’d be better offer joining “Christian civilization.” Why did they do this? The aristocrats were joining a community in which they could be mobile, whose elites they could intermarry with, and whose clerics would then provide positive PR (the only permanent (written) PR at the time?). Oh, and you’d also be less likely to get crusaded against by some land-hungry knights and/or overzealous religious order.

The Church and the EU (and other European institutions like the Council of Europe and the OSCE) seem to answer the same need: How do the various oligarchies on this small continent, with the constant threat of chaos and war by its division in competing States, try to attain some level of common security? Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski recently explicitly made the comparison, when asked if he was disappointed by the EU’s (in)action on the Ukraine: “The same thing applies to the Union as to the Vatican: God’s mills grind slowly but surely. “ Indeed, both the medieval Church and the EU are transnational bureaucracies uniting most of the continent, both have their dogmas and ideology (Catholicism, Europeanism).

The French medievalist Jacques Le Goff (who died on Tuesday) argued that Christendom was critical to the emergence of “European” identity:

Indeed, Christianity was essential to the emergence of Europe, but not so much as an ideology or a religion [...]. The feeling of a community was born of the fact that the institutions were, across the whole of Europe, very similar. In particular, the ecclesiastical network, with its bishoprics, its archbishoprics, etc, structured Europe, from the Scandinavian world to the Mediterranean.

Whether Europeans officially recognize it or not, it seems the Church more than anything else is what gave this portion of the Earth a certain cultural unity despite its national and political diversity, with a marked border with the Arabo-Muslim World and to a lesser extent with the Orthodox World. On the one side, the Bible, the Latin language and exogamous monogamy, on the other, the Quran, the Arabic language and polygamous endogamy. So perhaps, without being too Huntingtonian, it’s not surprising that today still the borders of “Europe” are de facto those between Christianity and Islam (and it doesn’t look like this is going to change).

What of today? The EU has generally been pretty shy about the continent’s (Latin) Christian heritage, given that usually one country is secular-minded enough (e.g. France, but not only) to oppose it and because the kind of people who the like the EU generally dislike anything that strikes of “chauvinism” (like Christian heritage). But there are some discreet references.

The Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun (William Blake, 1805).

Léon Marchal, the French Secretary-General of the Council of Europe (not technically part of the EU, but they use the same flag) at the time the twelve-gold-stars-on-blue flag was chosen, said these were the stars of “the Woman of the Apocalypse”: “It’s wonderful, we’ve just found the Corona Stellarum duodecim of the Apocalypse.” The relevant passage of the Book of Revelation reads: “A great sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” (There are of course other possible interpretations: 12 signs of the Zodiac, 12 apostles, 12 Olympian gods…)

Further feeding the end-of-the-world-minded, the European Parliament in Strasbourg looks suspiciously like the Tower of Babel, an ill-fated example of Promethean hubris swiftly punished by God (it also kind of looks like the Colosseum).


The “Little” Tower of Babel (Brueghel the Elder, 1563) and the Strasbourg Parliament.

In a 2011, arch-Europeanist and former Commission President Jacques Delors gave a speech to the Catholic Institute of Paris on “Europe, a spiritual adventure,” in which he cited the Schuman Declaration and Franco-German reconciliation as examples of Matthew’s call to forgiveness: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (Note that this website illustrates the speech with a Delors haloed with the European stars.)

Whether Europeanists explicitly recognize Christian heritage or not, many people have noted the quasi-religious quality of a great deal of Europeanism. The European federalist “bears the cross” of tirelessly calling for unity in relative anonymity and irrelevance. The Bundesbank, and its ECB descendant, zealously preach the neo-Lutheran gospel of deficit reduction and hard money, even (especially?) if it hurts. More generally, the Europeanist’s principle seems to be to “have faith” that, one way or another, things will work out if you just wait long enough and believe.

This is especially true of anybody talking about “the European economy”: one has the feeling even the most powerful men do not really know what’s going on and are mainly hoping for the best. (How bankrupt are our banks? Is it is really possible for the South to recover without devaluation? Are the markets going to sneeze?)

The powerful ECB President Mario Draghi told us recently: “I trust that, if we remain resolute, great things for the euro area and its citizens can become possible.” Trust. His colleague Benoît Cœuré used the same word when trying reassure to investors via Bloomberg News (i.e. the traders’ media): “We do believe in the recovery. We do trust the recovery.”

Draghi also recently said: “I think we can now say of the euro area economy what Galileo said of the earth: eppur si muove – and yet, it moves!” Is that how oppressive the chorus of economic arguments against euro recovery are, like the old Catholic Church’s hostility to heliocentrism?

The problem with Europeanism-as-religion, as with all ideological dogmas, is that it leads to a lot of intellectual intolerance, uncritical assumptions and fuzzy thinking. This is not a new issue. The famous Anglo-German liberal and former European Commissioner Ralf Dahrendorf described the problem elegantly in 1996:

But to the present day I believe that the gap between rhetoric and reality has to be closed if Europe is ever going to command the support of the citizens of its member states.

However, even as “Wieland Europa” [the pseudonym Dahrendorf used to write critical articles in a German newspaper], I had no doubt about the need for the EEC [European Economic Community] to marshal the common interests of the member-states and to move them forward together. To which ultimate goal? In my view, Andrew Shonfield put it well in the title of his 1972 Reith Lectures: Europe—Journey to an Unknown Destination. All that federal and confederal, supra- and international verbiage is misleading and unhelpful when it comes to taking the next steps; where these steps ultimately lead is a question for philosophers of history rather than politicians and political analysts.

This kind of teleological thinking is typical of religions. European institutions and cooperation are not meant to aide in tackling the practical problems being faced by the various Nation-States. That would allow for pragmatic discussion of the merits of every EU area: of the Schengen Area of free movement, of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), of the Single Market, of the Community Method of lawmaking, or of the (catastrophic) free movement of capital.

Instead, religious Europeanism sees all of these aspects uncritically and unconditionally defends them en bloc as necessary parts of a mystical gateway towards salvation: “irreversible” (a term frequently used, but what in human affairs is “irreversible”?) unity and peace in Europe, Superpowerhood. The religious Europeanist will have an Olympian disregard for the specifics of actual EU institutions and policies, and he will be hatefully vague about the final “federal” form which, it is assumed, will solve all problems in Europe. Dispassionate analysis and discussion of the specific pros and cons of European integration becomes impossible.

Any return to the Nation-State is not looked upon pragmatically – How well does the European system work? Can it realistically be fixed or can the situation be improved through national means? – but rather a sign of “the fall” which will be punished by War, and presumably the other riders of the Apocalypse. That’s the Europeanist eschatology.

As with traditional religion, we have the moralism (don’t defend national interest), we have the salutory self-flagellation (respect dogmatic arbitrary rules, even if they damage the country, we will be rewarded), we have the excommunication of unbelievers (marginalization of euroskeptics) and we have the teleological finality (the Superstate).

The comparison with Communism, although obviously the latter’s crimes were infinitely greater than the various abuses of Europeanism, is irresistible. Communism was also obviously a kind of atheistic religion which, as an instrument of power, despite itself couldn’t help resembling the old religions with their politicized schisms, mutual excommunications and self-serving tautologies.

In both Communism and Europeanism, you have the mystification of a banal political thing (regime change or “the Revolution”, a currency union or the “federal leap”), transmogrified into the gateway to Heaven on Earth (“the end of exploitation of man by man,” “whithering away of the State”). In practice, Communist doctrine meant simply justifying an all-powerful Party-State, with the glorious future destined to always remain… in the future. Whereas the problems of the present, in a lazy if internally coherent rhetorical trick, were explained away as not caused by “Socialism,” but rather by the absence of “more Socialism.”

With Europeanism too, if in a less extreme form, you have ever-more concentration of power in a caste of unelected and largely immoveable functionaries (central bankers, commissioners, judges), arbitrarily, often ideologically and generally poorly managing the European economy. The reinforcement of power concentration in the hands of this elite, we are assured, will eventually lead to European democracy. Any problems in the present are not due to “Europe,” and to the extent this “Europe” has flaws, the answer is necessarily “more Europe”… This appears to be, in investment, politics and war, a common logical and rhetorical technique when one needs to double down, especially if there are doubts and suspicions that one might be throwing more good money after bad.

Europeanism, like Communism and Enlightenment univeralism, then appears despite itself to be incredibly marked by many of the mechanisms and assumptions of Christianity, which seems unsurprising given that this religion dominated virtually all official thought and culture for over a thousand years on the continent. (Note: this does mean that the EU cannot be anti-Christian.)

On a personal level, it’s quite frustrating to try to debate anything based on faith rather than reason. On the other hand, many political writers have argued for the need for some kind of religion to be uncritically-accepted by the masses for society to function, whether it be actual religious, or something like the secularized American civil religion. As Steve Sailer points out: “Indoctrination, criticism, ostracism, and violence are among the main tools for enforcing a set of social norms.” And indeed, how could any society exist without social norms? Perhaps then Europe is better off having a fledgling transnational civil religion of its own, despite the inevitable negative side effects. Ideally, your religion is explicit enough to give people a clear vocabulary of values and rights, common points of reference and a symbolic identity, but flexible enough that it can actually adapt to changing circumstances and be compatible with fairly diverse political viewpoints.

There are positive consequences to the fact that, today, Europe’s elites and the more educated segment of the population (30%?) are committed to an ideology, whatever it might be. We’re not going to be warring much if all of our rulers are on the same page.

The question of why Europeanism as an ideology, with its national variants, has triumphed now is an interesting one. Europeanism – with its particular mix of unconscious (euro-)chauvinism, moralistic be-nice-ism, pseudo-cosmopolitanism, contempt for national public opinion and cult of borderlessness – is the perfect ideology for liberal-plutocratic elites, mobile professionals and functionally-English-speaking yuppies (all of which, incidentally, benefit the most from it, as against the unenlightened and probably racist working classes). As Ed West recently brilliantly summarized it: “[The EU] is a nation for people who don’t like nations … a post-national, universalist dream based on an idea of indiscriminate altruism.”

The key seems to be that it appealed to the softness of European societies today and of the middle classes in particular – the unfortunate side-effect of the success of the postwar European economies and welfare states, giving way to Nanny-Statism and individualism – as well as their classist sense of superiority vis-à-vis their less privileged/educated countrymen. The naïveté of “indiscriminate (pseudo-)altruism” and be-nice-ism fits perfectly with societies which have gone from the harshness of patriarchy and manual labor, to becoming nations of perma-students, office drones, unemployed and pensioners, that is to say, dependents. Critically, the ideology also fits perfectly with the self-interest of Europe’s liberal-plutocratic elites. After all, practically Europeanism has largely been a variant of neoliberalism, with its emphasis on economic borderlessness, privatization and financialization. But, reflecting the peoples’ different values, what was sold in the Anglo-American world in the name of “liberty” had to be sold in continental Europe in the name of “peace.”

I suspect that subjectively this religion, like all religions, serves to protect the individual from the harshness and anxieties of an infinitely complex and ever-uncertain reality (even if we have softened it through extraordinary security through modernity, the workings of the universe remain basically unfathomable to the individual and life remains inherently uncertain). Perhaps those who are free of religious and institutional dogmas – those of Machiavellian candor who can look reality in the face unflinchingly despite its share of ugliness, and who are often persecuted for simply describing that reality – must remain, whatever their higher consciousness, a minority for society to function.

The relationship between the largely passive, unthoughtful, religious Europeanism of a fraction of the population and actual European institutions and policymaking is somewhat tenuous. Basically, that part of the population will automatically accept whatever the various ministers, diplomats, bureaucrats and judges who are “constructing Europe” come up with. And it will be very hostile to any “rollback” in their handiwork. They tend to be remarkably uncritical of the consequences of the elitist aspects of this integration: being done largely by and for tiny elites, European integration has tended to reinforce the power of unelected government officials and of mobile corporate actors (especially banks), while reducing the power of elected governments and citizens.

Without this religious sentiment, it might be impossible for 28 Nation-States, who retain armies after all, to willingly submit to European authorities and majorities, especially when, at times, it goes against their national interest.

Sikorski’s analogy between the EU and the Papacy – “God’s mills grind slowly but surely” – is very appropriate from what I’ve seen of European lawmaking and interaction between the EU and other powers. There is rarely a decisive “will,” by definition if something has been consented to by nations as diverse in their interests and traditions as Germany, France, Britain and Poland, to name just four, then it is going to be very consensual stuff (although, increasingly, laws are voted in opposition to a big country). But, gradually, almost as imperceptibly as tectonic plates, there is a drift towards consensus in this or that area, and this large bloc of States gradually locks themselves into certain laws and policies. Once set, these are then typically very hard to reform, a lot of dysfunction may ensue as these become outdated or show negative side effects, but in keeping with the process, these are slowly if not always steadily changed.

The EU can often seem a headless empire (“Who’s in charge here?”), and if a distinct will is hard to pin down, it is obvious that, particularly with market issues, there is a “European center of gravity” of what is considered normal which is quite distinct from the centers of gravity of the United States or of China, who in some respects have very different ideas of what capitalism should look like.

And so, Europeans can to some extent assert themselves as equals with other economic giants, and promote their norms on consumer protection, chemicals, environmental standards, GMOs, etc. This critical mass of economic weight and semi-static, ever-expanding law has consistently had a pull – first the Six founders upon Great Britain and its economic satellites, then the rest of Western Europe, and today still much of the post-Soviet sphere – are the most concrete sense in which the EU is a power. Not the kind of “high politics” of war and peace which tends to interest writers and journalists, but the lowly bread and butter which is more important in day-to-day life (at least in peacetime). This would probably not be possibly without a semi-religious Europeanism among European nations’ elites and more-educated classes.

Europeanists sometimes try to discredit the legitimacy of the nation by pointing to its bloody history. But in fact, “Europe” itself probably would not have achieved its degree of cultural unity had it not been for the, similarly bloody, ruthless enforcement of Christian dogma for centuries and innumerable persecutions of unbelievers, heretics and schismatics. Here too, can one bemoan the cause while praising the consequence?

5 thoughts on “In Euro We Trust: Are European institutions the secular descendants of the medieval Church?

    1. craigjameswilly Post author

      Cheers for the response. It’s always rewarding to spark debate, especially with longer posts. The comment function on your blog appears to not be working, so I respond here:
      * I do not deny their is mysticism in other areas, including nationhood.
      * The Europeanist ideology is today more dogmatic and inflexible than a typical national ideology, especially in its pseudo-apoliticism and borderlessness in all spheres, openly antidemocratic principles.
      * Draghi/Coeuré statement I think was more prosaic: they have no account for how the euro-regime will be turned into something reasonable and, by their reason, know the economic arguments for why it will stay a “suboptimal” area for years, assuming it will even recover. So they can only “have faith.”
      * Ethnicity and civilization matter. I do not assume the current EU membership is the final phase, but it is obvious Turkey for example will not be a member like the others and is not considered a country like the others, in no small part because its society was not shaped by Latin Christendom.
      * All things being equal, multinational government is necessarily more elitist and less democratic than national government. EU government can be democratic insofar as there is a broadly shared, nation-like “European feeling.”
      * A good working (non-mystical) definition of the nation (for the endless anti-empirical solipsists I encounter who deny its very existence): a human community of non-kin who, to the extent they have solidarity (possibly entailing things like majority rule and consenting welfarism), have that solidarity with its members.
      * Democracy in non-nations is necessarily limited: If a minority is upset with the majority, it secedes or wages war; often a minoritarian regime featuring high-level interethnic bargaining (often including racist principles: X political offices for ethnicity Y) is necessary for the polity to survive.

      1. Protesilaos Stavrou

        Thanks Craig! I reply to each of your comments on the list:

        1. Ok
        2. Many are indeed dogmatic because they perceive of “more Europe” as an end in itself. Where “integration” is treated as a means to an end, then the discussion can be serious as to what the objective is and how it is best sought at. The ostensibly inexorable drive for an “ever closer Union” is no sound foundation for such an exercise, since itself is a meaningless proposition that, volens nolens, inserts the element of heteronomy to the core of the entire project. This noted, does the narrow-mindness of certain “leaders” and of their cheerleaders, or the evident shortcomings of a given form of European Community/Union suggest that every argument for further integration will always partake of mysticism/dogmatism? My answer to such question is “no, not necessarily” (and the same approach holds for the “typical national ideology”).
        3. That would indeed be another discussion altogether (as would be the evaluation of the ECB’s mandate or the architecture of the Euro/EMU). I do not know what Draghi and the rest of the ECB’s executive board really think, though I would suggest that the structural flaws of the single currency will have to be addressed by means of Treaty change, not by central bankers (also for the sake of democracy). Monetary policy has to be as accommodative as necessary, to ensure the proper functioning of the economy (is the ECB performing well on that front?), though it cannot be the panacea to malignancies that extend well beyond the scope of economic activity, let alone the monetary function. As for them having an account or not on how to proceed with dealing with the Euro, one may read the speeches they deliver (found on the ECB’s website), only to realise that this institution often acts as a “think tank” whose ideas eventually permeate some Commission communication/proposal. For example, much of the [initial] debate on the Single Supervisory Mechanism and the Single Resolution Mechanism were informed by the ECB’s approach to the matter, also given that it will be an integral part of a future Banking Union. Similar story with that much-touted “Blueprint for a deep and genuine Economic and Monetary Union”.
        4. They do matter, though there can be several other factors that interoperate in a given case. Turkey will not become a member of the EU any time soon, if it ever does. However, were they to fulfil all of the accession criteria and should Turkey be a paragon of democracy, then I would not be able to see how a denial of their EU membership could be legitimately (non-arbitrarily) grounded on ethnicity/civilisation alone.
        5. The fact is that the EU is less democratic than its parts (or the sum of its parts). Adding a sense of belongingness to “Europe”, is the continuation of nation-state building by other means. Judging from how rights/democracy have all too often been set aside to preserve a unity found on such a basis, and other things equal, I would tend to think that such a “European feeling” would not in itself address the democratic shortcomings of the Union — it could rather be used to cavalierly dismiss any concerns about the lack of effective democracy, obfuscate and marginalise them, “in the name of” pursuing some chimerical objective that would partake of that newly-found sense of togetherness. Think of “more Europe” on a grander scale and of how the one we are currently presented with, underpins all sorts of dubious claims over a range of issues.
        6. I’m fine with that.
        7. This is indeed the legacy of many states who had ethnic or other majorities who wished to dominate minorities. Yet, one can also think of nations, properly so called, where democracy also malfunctions. Would an indubitable nation such as Greece, whose nationalism has hitherto been of the ethnic sort, qualify as a proper democracy? My experience would suggest otherwise. Anyway, for me the point would be to consider the social and legal institutions in place that would/could foster a genuine democratic ethos. Whether these can exist within, among or beyond traditional nations remains to be determined, for it is a potential state of affairs.

        Have a nice Sunday :)

  1. Joe Litobarski

    Yo Craig,

    I won’t comment on your post beyond what Prot has already said, but I will say that I’ve written in the past about the influence of Christian (particularly Catholic) thought and doctrine on the so-called “founding fathers” of Europe, and you might want to take a gander:

    I’m not sure how much of this has carried through to the present day, but it was definitely expressed in the personal beliefs of the generation of European political leaders that lived through WWII.


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