Home / Comment / In brief

Putting principles back into the EU

Putting principles back into the EU

Like this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e-newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Friends Programme to find out how you can help our work.

The intellectual basis for the early European project, as several contributors to this blog series have already noted, was rooted in Christian Democracy. More specifically, if we were to identify an ideology that defined early European integration the answer would owe much to Catholic Social Teaching and the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity and responsibility.

If that serves as the ideological underpinnings of the European movement, however, it ought to be acknowledged that that is not unproblematic. Not even the most blinkered ideologue could claim that the realization of those principles has been an unqualified success.

Solidarity can look a hollow claim when enforced austerity programmes paralyze the Greek welfare state and leave up to 45% of pensioners below the poverty line. Or when youth unemployment in Italy and Spain hovers around the 50% mark, forcing a generation of young people to try their chances abroad or else do little more than sit and wait for better times.

It seems a bold claim too when we are witnessing a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean caused in part by a failure to properly support a Europe-wide search and rescue service or to reform the Dublin Regulation that defines the asylum rules. That the burden for processing and supporting these refugees falls disproportionately on those frontline countries least equipped to pay for it (Greece, Cyprus, Malta and Italy) is a mark of a failure in solidarity.

Subsidiarity too looks a difficult claim at times. The EU has become, in the words of the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, a “technocratic hegemony”. Too much activity takes place without clear enough accountability or democratic oversight. Policies have been imposed on some member states in clear defiance of national will.

And as for responsibility, we have an ambitious European-wide environmental policy, yet continue to import cheap dirty energy from Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine – self-evidently undermining those environmental efforts. The environment, it turns out, has little respect for the borders of international agreements. Buying energy from those countries, while claiming to be a world leader in environmental policy is not only hypocritical, it is a failing in moral responsibility.

These are failings, and pro-Europeans ought to be honest enough to recognise that. They are not, however, mortal failings: there is still hope for redemption. They should also be sat alongside legitimate success stories (as Europhobes should be honest enough to recognise). The reconciliation of France and Germany is, in historic terms, remarkable. The economic growth and reconstruction of various countries, but perhaps particularly the Republic of Ireland in the 1970s and 80s, has been a great success story.

We might add the oft-overlooked EU role in supporting the peace process in Northern Ireland and in supporting democracy in post-communist Eastern Europe. We ought to be quite astonished, when it comes to solidarity, that Serbia and Bosnia are both currently seeking to join a political union which includes and Croatia and Slovenia. This, less than 20 years since the Yugoslav wars, is remarkable.

The overall weakness of the EU at present is that the moral mission that was once fundamental has been allowed to fade. A technocratic obsession with neoliberal economics has become a rival pole to the moral mission in European decision-making. As an underlying basis for support this is desperately weak. Economics, as the Eurozone crisis has painfully reminded us all, is a fickle beast.

If the basis of European integration is to be that the EU will make people richer then it is doomed. Citizens will tolerate such a body in the economic boom times, and reject it when times get tough. The only sustainable basis for union is to be based on something more fundamental; something moral, perhaps even spiritual. A recovery of the moral mission of Europe and in particular the courage to put solidarity, subsidiarity and responsibility back at the top of the priority list is not naïve utopian politics – it is the last best chance for the EU to really work.

Nick Spencer and Ben Ryan | @theosnick and @BenedictWRyan

This article first appeared at | @ReimaginingE

Image by denzel from available in the public domain


See all

In the news

See all


See all

Get regular email updates on our latest research and events.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

Want to keep up to date with the latest news, reports, blogs and events from Theos? Get updates direct to your inbox once or twice a month.

Thank you for signing up.