Home / Comment / In brief

Boris Johnson and what the EU is really for

Boris Johnson and what the EU is really for

Ben Ryan looks at the European Union as a teleological construction – that may have lost its ‘telos’.

Interested by 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 Supporter Programme to find out how you can help our work.

It has finally happened. After all these years, I’ve finally found common ground with Boris Johnson. I can finally come out in public as someone who also likes to think of the EU as a “teleological construction”.

Of course, Johnson is learning, as I’ve long experienced, that using phrases like that about the EU is likely to lead to much unfair mockery and the experience of being shunned by friends and family alike. The Guardian has even written a stinging three paragraph explainer for its readers on what the pretentious term means. It being the Guardian they lacked the sense of irony to resist condemning it as a “polysyllabic dogwhistle to the paranoid [which] is just fallaciously redundant”; a far more blue collar turn of phrase.

What I find interesting, however, is that in this term Johnson has struck exactly at the heart of what is going wrong in the European project, if not quite in the way he thinks he has. Johnson believes the EU is a teleological construct (that is, an organization which only exists because it is set towards a particular, specific, end goal – or telos), because it is hellbent on achieving full political unity and the destruction of the nation state. There is some truth in that. The EU is committed to greater unity, particularly (for all sorts of obvious current economic reasons in the Eurozone) in terms of fiscal policy. The European project really was designed with the conscious desire to limit the power of nation states – specifically their power to independently militarize. The first part of the European project was the European Coal and Steel Community, which was explicitly designed to make war “materially impossible”.

The point there is that, at least in its origins, the project was not designed to achieve unity for its own sake, as Johnson seems to believe, but for a higher cause of peace and solidarity. As the Theos report A Soul for the Union argued, the early European project had an explicit moral core to it, based deeply in Catholic Social Teaching. It was founded on the principles of peace, of solidarity (between nations – and between classes, with a great focus being placed on working rights and conditions), subsidiarity (a term drawn explicitly from a Papal encyclical), and to create a new moral means of international politics. It absolutely was a teleological construction – but the telos it sought was not authoritarian unity the way Napoleon or Hitler had sought it, but a redeemed model for international politics.

However, even though Johnson’s vision of the EU’s telos is wrong, it still does get at the heart of the current European malaise for two reasons. First the EU still believes in itself as a teleological project (which means it struggles to respond to challenges), and second, paradoxically, it has stopped believing in itself as a teleological construction, which may ultimately kill it.

On the first point, because the EU still does believe in itself as a teleological project it has never come to terms with the idea that progress is not inevitable. In the EU’s teleological worldview, once a nation is fit to join the great moral crusade that is Europe it will only ever become more liberal, more social, more committed to human rights and more European. To join the EU there are criteria that countries have to meet to demonstrate that economically and constitutionally they are suitable European member states. What there isn’t, is much by way of means of intervention should a member state backslide. There was never any expectation that the current political movements in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, where constitutional gains are being reversed and hard nationalist governments hold sway, would ever be possible. The EU’s belief in its own inevitable teleology has left it blindsided to those shifts (as, to some extent, with Brexit too). This is a serious problem which the EU is struggling to confront.

Paradoxically, however, the EU’s greatest danger is that it has stopped believing in itself as a teleological construction. Whilst it still believes in a sort of inevitable progress once member states join, the EU’s greatest failing is that it has abandoned the vision of its founders. The bold moral mission, based on peace, solidarity, subsidiarity and anew politics has become more and more muted over time (again see the Soul for the Union report for a more in–depth discussion). In its place the EU has become technocratic, and ever more focused only on narrow economic goals. The commitment to the common good has become more of a commitment to sovereign debt.

This is a tragic failing (although not entirely hopeless, I still had and have hope that it can reverse some of those more recent trends) and one which could ultimately finish the EU. Without a strong telos – that is a mission to which the EU is aiming, that its citizens support and feel some sort of deep commitment to – the EU is always going to be vulnerable. If you make yourself a body that bases its popular support on economics alone, you will always be vulnerable to the vagaries of the international economy. If it could recapture its telos it would be in a much stronger place. In a way, Johnson’s expression is the ultimate challenge that Brexit should present to the EU: what are you really for? If it’s just the money, expect to see some more “Exits”.


 Image from MaxPixel available on the public domain.

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan is Home Affairs Adviser at Church of England. He was Head of Research at Theos until late 2019. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) and the author of Theos reports on chaplaincy, the EU, the Catholic charity sector, mental health and ecumenism.

Watch, listen to or read more from Ben Ryan

Posted 19 February 2018

Brexit, EU, Europe


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.