In his Mémoires d’Espoir, the leader of Free France during World War II and the founder of the Fifth Republic, General Charles de Gaulle, wrote at length about a subject on many people’s minds today—Europe. Though often portrayed as passionately French to the point of incorrigibility, de Gaulle was, in his own way, quintessentially European.
For de Gaulle, however, Europe wasn’t primarily about supranational institutions like the European Commission or the European Central Bank, let alone what some European politicians vaguely call “democratic values.” To de Gaulle’s mind, Europe was essentially a spiritual and cultural heritage, one worthy of emulation by others. Europe’s nations, de Gaulle wrote, had “the same Christian origins and the same way of life, linked to one another since time immemorial by countless ties of thought, art, science, politics and trade.”
On this basis, de Gaulle considered it “natural” that these nations “should come together to form a whole, with its own character and organization in relation to the rest of the world.” However, de Gaulle also believed that without clear acknowledgment and a deep appreciation of these common civilizational foundations, any pan-European integration would run aground.
Today’s European crisis reflects the enduring relevance of de Gaulle’s insight. This is true not only regarding the quasi-religious faith that some Europeans place in the type of supranational bureaucracies that drew de Gaulle’s ire. It also applies to the inadequacies of the vision that informs their trust in such institutions. Until Europe’s leaders recognize this problem, it is difficult to see how the continent can avoid further decline, whether as a player on the global stage or as societies that offer something distinctly enriching to the rest of the world.
Economics, Migration, and Values
In our time, three phenomena tend to come to mind when considering Europe’s contemporary problems. One is the economic difficulties troubling not only small European nations, such as Greece and Portugal, but also large countries, such as Italy and France. The second is the influx of migrants likely to continue sweeping across Europe’s borders over the next few years. As the Paris atrocities have demonstrated, no amount of political correctness can disguise the fact that the migration issue cannot be separated from the problem of Islamist terrorism. And that raises a third matter, which is on everyone’s mind but which few European leaders seem willing to address in any comprehensive way: is the Islamic religion, taken on its own terms, compatible with the values and institutions of Western culture?
Not far beneath the surface of these issues are important cultural questions. In his book Mass Flourishing, Nobel prize-winning economist Edmund Phelps has illustrated how certain value commitments and the ways in which they become institutionalized have helped shape national and supranational European structures that prioritize, for instance, economic security through the state over liberty, creativity, and risk-taking. This is one reason why many European politicians, business leaders, and trade unions regularly invoke words like “solidarity” when opposing economically liberalizing reforms. The notion that solidarity can be realized by means other than extensive regulation apparently escapes them.
Similarly, the fact that most of the migrants presently surging into Europe come from religious-cultural contexts quite different from Europe’s own historical roots has inevitably led many to wonder whether some of these migrants can—or are willing to—integrate themselves into European societies that presumably want to remain distinctly Western in their values and institutions. Since the 1960s, many migrants to nations such as Sweden, Belgium, and France have not assimilated. In some cases, they live almost extra-territorial existences, as anyone who has visited les banlieues of cities like Brussels, Lille, or Stockholm knows. To enter the Brussels district of Molenbeek, from where at least one of the Paris terrorists came, is to pass into a different world: one of drugs, unemployment, and, above all, radical jihadist sentiments.
One reason why de Gaulle let French Algeria go in the early 1960s was that he was unconvinced that France could successfully integrate several million North African Muslims and remain a cohesive Western society. The demonstrable failures of various multicultural policies in many Western European countries since that time underscore that he had a point.
What Roots, Whose Roots?
An even deeper question raised by these issues concerns what precisely Europe’s leaders are asking migrants to integrate themselves into and why migrants should bother to do so.
In recent years, somewhat unlikely figures such as Britain’s Conservative prime minister David Cameron and France’s Socialist interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve have described their nations as historically Christian countries. Looking across the political spectrum, however, most European politicians—especially in Western Europe—avoid such language. Instead, one typically hears expressions such as “the democratic constitutional state,” “tolerance,” “human rights,” “common European home,” and “pluralism.” Much of this terminology is associated with what the secular German philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls the project of “political liberalism,” which he describes as “a species of Kantian republicanism.”
It’s not that democracy, tolerance, or pluralism are problematic in themselves. What really matters is the normative basis upon which these ideas and institutions are based and the cultural formations that surround and give them meaning. There is every difference between, for instance, (1) a society that roots human rights in natural law reasoning and Judeo-Christian humanism, and (2) a community that explicitly rejects such foundations and grounds human rights in democratic consensus and the levelling egalitarianism of which Alexis de Tocqueville was so critical. In recent writings, Habermas himself has stated that, by themselves, post-Enlightenment philosophies have experienced difficulty in providing the necessary ballast for many of the concepts and structures that such philosophies claim to support.
So how might this play out with regard to Europe’s economic and migration challenges? An idea of solidarity informed by Jewish and Christian faith clearly indicates that concern for neighbor can’t be outsourced to welfare states. It also forces one to recognize that people needing assistance have both bodies and souls; they are not purely material beings. This concept of solidarity doesn’t deny a role to the government. But it does require personal commitment that goes beyond just giving money—or voting for other people to give their money—to support more, probably ineffective, welfare programs.
Imagine a Europe unafraid of insisting that it has a specific culture rooted in Judeo-Christianity and the various Enlightenments into which newcomers are expected to assimilate. Migrants entering such a continent would be likely to develop specific expectations of what it means to be European. Contrast this with a Europe that affirms the self-evidently false claim that all cultures and religions are basically the same, or that refers endlessly to diversity and tolerance but roots such things in the contemporary cult of non-judgmentalism. The first Europe doesn’t require newcomers to become believing Jews, Christians, or fledging philosophes. It does, however, have a basis for explaining why those unwilling to accept this culture should look elsewhere for a permanent home. By contrast, the second Europe can have no principled objection to significantly diluting or even abandoning Western culture in the name of tolerance.
Goodbye to Europe
When Lieutenant de Gaulle went to war with millions of other young men in August 1914, Europe ruled, literally, most of the world. Over the succeeding four years, it tore itself apart, only to repeat the exercise twenty years later. In the process of doing so, Europe’s nations greatly damaged their civilizational credentials and gradually lost their hegemonic status—not just politically, but also culturally and economically.
Today’s Europe is a much smaller place. As the European Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, observed in an October speech, the EU’s share of global GDP is declining. Europe’s aging populations, he added, have fallen from an estimated 20 percent of the world population in 1914 to a mere 7 percent today. Internally, many European nations’ public finances remain in a perilous state. Likewise, most Western European countries’ unemployment levels show little sign of falling. Just one week later, as if to drive home the point, Juncker stated, “The European Union is not in a good state.” This, he noted, is “above all visible with regard to the migration problem.”
European nations are not unfamiliar with large-scale internal migrations or even with considerable numbers of migrants arriving from outside their borders. Indeed, former European colonies such as America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand illustrate how immigration can benefit host nations. But failure or even unwillingness to maintain control of sovereign borders is another thing altogether. Europe is now paying—and will continue to pay—a high price for this. Why, however, protect sovereign borders when you’re unwilling to say that Europe means anything at all beyond non-judgmentalism, an autonomy devoid of serious ends, and easy access to bountiful albeit increasingly unaffordable welfare systems—all presided over by a political class that promises everything to everyone as long as they remain in charge? Put another way, which of these things is actually worth protecting, let alone promoting?
Charles de Gaulle and plenty of others had another vision of Europe—a Europe that knew its roots and believed that it had concrete content to offer the rest of the world. Much of that content is reflective of Europe’s genuine plurality, which EU bureaucrats routinely gloss over. As de Gaulle stated in a 1962 press conference:
I do not believe that Europe can have any living reality if it does not include France and her Frenchmen, Germany and its Germans, Italy and its Italians, and so forth. Dante, Goethe, Chateaubriand belong to all Europe to the very extent that they were respectively and eminently Italian, German, and French. They would not have served Europe very well if they had been stateless, or if they had thought and written in some type of integrated Esperanto or Volapük.
It is hard to imagine contemporary European politicians speaking like this today. That illustrates the extent to which many European leaders—political, economic, and religious—and a good number of Europe’s citizens have invested their hopes in the bloodless administrative structures that promote top-down technocratic solutions to problems that simply cannot be solved through such means. The problem is that without an animating, morally uplifting vision—be it a humanism informed by and rooted in Judeo-Christianity, de Gaulle’s Europe des Patries, a confidence that one belongs to a civilization with a unique character worth preserving, or some combination of these things—Europe’s moral and cultural hollowing-out will continue amidst an Indian summer of managed decline and self-loathing. This makes it vulnerable to agitation from within, whether it’s from hard nationalists of right and left, or those who wish that the siege of Vienna and the battle of Tours had turned out differently.
At the end of his life, de Gaulle was pessimistic about Europe’s long-term fate. He didn’t think it would succumb to the then very real Soviet threat. Communism, he believed, contradicted key aspects of human nature; hence, it couldn’t last. But the death of European self-belief, already well advanced among many of Western Europe’s intellectuals, according to de Gaulle, was a far more serious long-term threat to Europe.
Unfortunately, I fear, le général will be proven right.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared November 17, 2015 in Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute and is reprinted with permission.