An ambition without precedent

Joris Backer and Alexander Rinnooy Kan

There are European values. No one conceives of Europe as a valueless continent. Indeed, as mixed as the track record of European civilisation has been, it has contributed indisputably to notions that go beyond the daily wants served in the market place. Notions like freedom, democracy, justice and human rights, largely originating in Europe, became enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and have gained recognition, however meagre at times, within the global community.

Europeans have always demonstrated an exceptional drive to travel and conquer the world. In doing so, they have explored an extraordinary number of (friendly or hostile) new territories. Albeit not exclusive European, these conquests followed by colonization of the local population, have made a lasting mark on many people and on their offspring, as it did reversely on the colonizing cultures themselves. European values have been exported – sometimes manu militari – but have also absorbed the richness of many other cultures.

It is this very success story that complicates the European sequel. Of course, the four values listed above have become part of the European treaty (articles I-2 and 6). But they can – fortunately enough – no longer be claimed to be exclusively European. That does not and should not prevent Europeans from feeling a specific responsibility for their recognition and from making a special effort on their behalf in and beyond the continent. “Noblesse oblige.” But purely European, they are certainly not.

Serious research has been dedicated to the identification of additional values that characterize Europe and its citizens. Perhaps not surprisingly, the outcome is rich in variety but low in consistency. The Atlas of European values, a fascinating website, documents how different European nations feel about different value proposals on a very long list. Here and elsewhere, there is no shortage of values that Europeans subscribe to, but huge variation in how strongly they feel about each single one of them going from country to country (and equally, one suspects, within each country as well).

There is perhaps a single exception to this rule: the notion of social solidarity, of a sense of obligation on the part of the wealthy to support the needy through a publicly funded effort. The welfare state is a European invention of which the ingredients are supported elsewhere but nowhere quite so wholeheartedly. It should remain one of the cornerstones of European values, if the European project is to generate support and credibility in the years to come. The development of the social pillar in European legislative and budgetary projects for the years to come is not a luxury but a necessity. Thus, it reflects a proud legacy, but even at that level hard to claim for Europe in exclusivity.

Let’s face it: it is going to be impossible to define a value set that is so exclusively European that non-Europeans can be identified and excluded on that basis. And that is nothing to be concerned about. The very variety of values, the “bouillon des cultures” that Europe stands for is one of its most endearing features, and it is that variety that should guide us and inspire us. What therefore should distinguish Europe is an ongoing willingness to appreciate the different shades of emphasis that each subset of Europeans attaches to a rich list of value notions, and a readiness to celebrate the ensuing diversity as something to cherish and certainly not something to regret. In doing that, we celebrate the transition, seventy-odd years ago, from a continent stuck in its differences to a continent committed to collaboration.

European values have been shaped on a belligerent continent. Europe has seen a turbulent past and nobody can predict if it will be capable of learning from it; as the expression goes, those who cannot are bound to repeat it. Yet, it is a value in its own right that Europe has patiently continued to strive for a political union during seventy years, coping with many set backs and uneasy compromises on the way. It is an ambition without precedent and without a finite horizon, be it that the effort itself creates momentum in the right direction: shaping structures for European citizens to rely on in peace and prosperity, in an ever globalizing world.

Do Americans worry about American values or Asians about Asian ones? For different reasons, the answer is: much less than Europeans do about theirs. One of the stranger features of the new Europe is its eagerness to seek homogeneity where the recognition of diversity can be a real source of strength. There is an obviously better outlet for all that creative intellectual energy. European arts and culture, no matter how poorly delineated, are the prime vehicles for European values and deserve to be a much larger part of what Europe offers to its citizens: a permanent reminder of what their continent continues to offer to the world.

Joris Backer
Senator for Democraten 66 in the Netherlands

Alexander Rinnooy Kan
Senator for Democraten 66 in the Netherlands
Professor in Economics at University of Amsterdam

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