Tuesday 25. January 2022
#163 - September


The appeal to the “soul of Europe”


A metaphor, a misunderstanding, and their consequences.

Again and again, when Church and religious representatives turn their attention to the European project, the conversation turns to the “soul of Europe” and the call for “giving Europe a soul”. This rouses suspicion that the Churches are exploiting this metaphor to insist on their ‘ensouling’ role in the European Union. To dispel this misunderstanding, here is an attempt at clarification.


A period of upheaval

Politicians began speaking of the “soul of Europe” at a time when one phase of the European integration process had been completed yet at the same time, as a result of the turbulent historical events of 1989–1991, the original vision of Europe was beginning to lose its force for its citizens, and there was not unanimity over new objectives.

After the years of “Eurosclerosis” in 1975–1985, Commission President Jacques Delors tried to set the “European train” in motion again and formulate new goals for the EU. With the Treaty of Maastricht, the internal market was completed and the European Communities became the European Union.


At the same time, it was becoming clear in some Member States, when they voted on the Treaty, that not all the citizens of the then 12 Member States were ready to accept these changes without protest. The “European engine” began to splutter – the project of European integration seemed to be losing the citizens’ approval.


The collapse of Communism and the integration of these countries presented the European Union with new challenges. The break-up of Yugoslavia and the war in the Balkans made it painfully obvious that the EU was helpless in the face of political disunity.

In this situation, Jacques Delors made it clear that the technical side of the integration project was working, more or less – but it was no longer capable of capturing the imagination of those who were supposed to be the project’s carriers: the citizens of Europe. The integration process was being perceived as a technocratic market instrument – the project of a political and intellectual elite out of touch with reality, which visibly was not delivering what it had promised. The great achievements of the integration process, starting with the period of peace, were being taken for granted – and not recognised as being the result of a long political process.


Winning over the citizens

Delors knew that he needed to win over the people – all the citizens of Europe –to this project if it was to have a future. For this, a clear goal was needed – something worth striving for together, and something the citizens could get excited about. It was in this context, looking for comrades-in-arms, that he used the word “soul”.


With the metaphor of the “soul of Europe”, Jacques Delors had a project in mind, but not a religiously defined ontological dimension.

We can see what his intention was in a speech he made to the Conference of European Churches (CEC) in February 1992:


“We are now entering a fascinating time – perhaps especially for the young generation – a time when the debate on the meaning of European construction becomes a major political factor. Believe me, we will not succeed with Europe solely on the basis of legal expertise or economic know-how. It is impossible to put the potential of Maastricht into practice without a breath of air. If in the next ten years we have not managed to give a soul to Europe, to give a spirituality and meaning, the game will be up. … This is why I want to revive the intellectual and spiritual debate on Europe. I invite the Churches to participate actively in it. We do not want to control it; it is a democratic discussion, not to be monopolised by technocrats. I would like to create a meeting place, a space for free discussion open to men and women of spirituality, to believers and non-believers, scientists and artists. We are working on the idea already. We must find a way of involving the Churches.”


Here it is clear what Jacques Delors meant by “soul” in this context: an intellectual and spiritual debate concerning the goals and the significance of European integration, which cannot exclude any person and in which no individual may dominate. Men and women, young and old, believers and non-believers, scientists and artists – all should participate. This “soul” is a process. At the same time, Delors never quite manages to dispense with the technocrats: “If ... we have not managed to give a soul to Europe, to give a spirituality and meaning, ...


This debate has taken place (and is still carrying on, in a lower key) between writers and philosophers in the feature pages of the quality press, at symposia and congresses of think-tanks and Euro-enthusiasts, but it has never really left the circles of the intellectual elite. In the wider public debate, it has mainly surfaced in the form of catchwords and slogans. There has been no particularly discernible growth in awareness that the European integration process is supposed to be being shaped by those whom it also affects – the citizens of Europe.


Two misunderstandings

The Churches are in danger of succumbing to the temptation of turning Delors’ project to win over citizens into a struggle against the decline of Europe’s Christian culture.


The concern of Jacques Delors, a Catholic Socialist, has been fundamentally misunderstood by some within the Churches. What Delors himself wanted to be understood as a debate about the finality and significance of Europe for Europeans has degenerated into a debate about the soul as an ontological dimension. The focus moved from the – in principle – open process of “giving a soul to Europe” in which the Churches are invited to participate, to the theological or cultural-historical question as to what defines the soul of Europe. Delors’ metaphor – after it had been picked up by the theologians – changed its meaning (but, of course, this often occurs with metaphors which unexpectedly change the play on words).


With this change in the play on words, however, the misunderstanding was compounded. The concept of “soul” in connection with “State” was part of the political-philosophical Romantic discourse of the 19th century in regard to the nation-state. This held that the political, cultural and religious dimensions belonged together. The State is the body of the nation, and the nation itself is ‘animated’. The best example is Poland’s understanding of itself as an “alter Christus”, suffering in place of Europe.


This ‘re-mythologising’ of political discourse, as Viennese historian Tamara Ehn describes it, is at the same time a symptom of one of Europe’s most fundamental difficulties: the fear of a public democratic discussion (which would rightly earn its name) about the European Union, its goals, and the way to reach those goals.


A second misunderstanding involves narrowing down Delors’ intended process of “giving a soul to Europe” to a debate about values – an instrument in the struggle against the supposed decline of European Christian culture, its values and its moral convictions. The discussion – inescapable and also necessary in this context – about the identity of Europe then becomes restricted to the question of whether that identity is (exclusively) Christian or secular – a restriction which does not do justice to the plurality of Europe and its cultures.


Daring to be pluralistic

The heart of the European integration process is inhabited by many souls, including one that is Christian. They all need to be discovered.


One of the greatest dangers in the discussion about the soul of Europe lies in the temptation to claim the “soul of Europe” exclusively for one’s own group. That is something that the Churches are accused of doing, but it also applies similarly to the “fundamentalist secularism” which bans both Church and religion from the public arena and debate. It claims to be thoroughly “neutral” and “objective”, but ultimately will not tolerate anything other than itself. What is overlooked here is that the soul of Europe draws upon several different sources, each of which makes an original contribution. The integration of Europe is not the only thing that entails a difficult learning process: the same can be said of the transition to a pluralistic society. In this process, being willing to recognise the valuable contributions of different groups and people – religious or secular – to the attainment of a shared goal, and discussing that goal: that, I think, is what Jacques Delors had in mind when he spoke of the “soul of Europe”.


Michael Kuhn




Translated from the original text in German



This article was published in a slightly different form on 24 May 2013 in connection with the “Long Night of the Churches 2013” in issue 3/2013 of “InfoEuropa. Informationen über den Donauraum und Mitteleuropa”, pp. 6–8.


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