The soul of Europe

Meine Pieter van Dijk

In his new book ‘Looking for the soul of Europe’, the Dutch philosopher, Professor Koo van der Wal of Erasmus University in Rotterdam, expresses his worries about the stagnation of the process of European integration. Through what he calls a cultural philosophical exploration he wants to explain what makes us Europeans. He makes an effort to provide a philosophical basis for the process of integration and hopes in this way to promote European integration. He starts criticizing the integration process and asking the question: why do we need the European Union? Then deals with the question: what makes us Europeans and what is the European way of life and thinking? At the end of this contribution the way to reform the EU is discussed and an opinion about his book will be formulated.

Criticizing the integration process
A lot of criticism of the European integration process concerns the bureaucracy in Brussels and the ever growing budget of the European Union. This bureaucracy just produces rules which infringe on the sovereignty of member countries and the Brexit process can be seen as a reaction: we want our sovereignty back!

Van der Wal emphasizes the limited involvement of the citizens. The European integration project was too much a project of heads of government and common people did not feel sufficiently involved. That is why the French and the Dutch for example voted against the so-called ‘European constitution’ and right wing parties scored in different countries with anti-EU policies.

Why do we need Europe?
Free trade has benefited European countries and the subsequent economic and later monetary union are stages towards deeper integration, which now also require deeper political integration. According to Van der Wal there is no alternative for Europe. We have to be united in a global context where other countries or blocks have become very important. In my terms we started the EU to avoid another war and now we need it as a block between the other superpowers. Until 1989 we had a bi-polar world with the Soviet Union versus the United States and now we have a tri-polar world with the US versus China and the EU trying to play its role. A world with just two superpowers reduces all the other countries to backbenchers, supporting one or the other superpower. In terms of Bob Dylan: we are just a pawn in their game!

At this moment in time there is a potential for more blocks to play a role. A multi-polar world could consist of China, India and the US, or China, Europe and the US, or a combination of the two. India is currently growing very rapidly and competes with China for markets and influence. Even a combination of countries is possible: e.g. the collaboration between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South-Africa, the so-called BRICS countries. They could claim to defend the interests of poor nations and provide an alternative for a western dominated global system. The experience of the EU has inspired other continents. Typically, the successor of the Organisation for African Union is now called the African Union, or AU! Also the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) looks at the EU for how to create a common market, an economic union and eventually a monetary union (Van Dijk, 2014a).

The voice of individual European countries will not be heard in a bi-polar world and certainly not in a multi-polar world with China, India and the US as the major players. Hence we need to unite and overcome our practical problems with the EU by emphasizing what binds European countries. We are much more than just a free trade agreement, as the British sometimes try to get us to believe. The funds spent by Brussels want to promote economic and political integration, but also try to achieve a more equal distribution of the wealth in Europe.

What makes us Europeans?
Van der Wal wants to answer the question: what makes us Europeans? His answer is based on the philosophical and cultural roots Europeans share. According to him, there is a European way of life and of thinking, which goes back to two philosophical traditions: the Enlightenment (1650) and Romanticism, which became a dominant intellectual trend in the second quarter of the 19th century. They interact in an almost dialectical, typical European way: the Enlightenment makes us believe that we can get to know everything and give shape to the world around us, while Romanticism emphasizes that we are creative beings enjoying beauty and that we are able to go beyond the real world.

It is interesting that Van der Wal does not point to our common Christian culture, which started when Christianity became the state church of the Roman Empire, when Emperor Theodosius I made it the Empire’s official religion. Nor does Van der Wal choose the Jewish-Christian roots of Europe, which in the current debate are often confronted with the Islamic religion in the Middle East, as if the Islam would not be part of the Jewish-Christian tradition of (Abrahamic) monotheistic religions.

The Greek philosophical tradition is even older than the Christian tradition and brought us the ideas of democracy, sound reasoning, and empirical research. The Enlightenment also emphasized what Kant summed up as the era’s motto: “Dare to know!” Do away with ghosts, dictatorial leaders and all kinds of prejudices. In the age of reason people questioned even the existence of God.

The shared European culture
Europe was already unified by the Romans and a century later Charlemagne pulled together large parts of the continent. However, in the 16th till the 19th century a process of disintegration took place, when the nation-state became the level to integrate governance and develop social identities. Only after the Second World War, in the spirit of this should never happen again, an integration process started, described by authors like Geert Mak (2017) and Norman Davies (1997). The disintegration process came with a lot of wars and revolutions, and we can now claim that there has been no major war in Europe after the EU started to integrate. Van der Wal mentions the theory that countries which really trade together usually do not fight with each other.

The European way of life and thinking
The European way of life and thinking implies its own ‘humanity’, its own way of being human, which differs from the US or China. Van der Wal thinks in terms of stories. He notes that ‘the big stories’ play an important role and that Europeans have forgotten the story of their success: eliminating poverty and war. He looks at the EU as nationalism at a higher level, and speaks of the development of a European humanity, or civilization. At the heart of the European identity is our concept of humanity.

According to Van der Wal, life in Europe is determined by the Enlightenment and Romanticism. The Enlightenment may have gone too far in believing we can measure everything and can create our own future if we apply our rational skills. However, Romanticism can then be considered as the correction. According to Van der Wal Romanticism pays attention to intuition, fantasy, and imagination. The emphasis is put on the beautiful, the poetic, or the creative. We are shaped by these two approaches and they create the tension in which we can determine who we are, and what we want to be; we are innovators.

Another Europe
The European humanity is conditioned by the institutions that we have created, including the rule of law, the protection of individual human rights, and the emphasis on transparency and accountability. In the so-called Rhineland model of business, participation of the workers is emphasized. These experiences can become part of an inspiring story about Europe, which can motivate citizens to be proud of being part of the EU and to give shape to further integration. The European experience is different from the Chinese political economy where individual freedom is less important and the government intervenes in the business world and in private life. lt is also different from the American system of cowboy capitalism and a presidential system which allows one man to change everything his predecessor has achieved in eight years!

Van der Wal (2018) finishes his book by emphasising the European ideal (see also Van Dijk, 2012). The reality of European rules and regulation is sometimes discouraging and in certain member countries the political party in power tries to subordinate the legal system to the political system, or some of the richer countries are unwilling to share their resources with the poorer member countries. However, Van der Wal emphasizes that openness is a fundamental trait of being human and helps to give shape to the humanitarian ideals of European culture (Van Dijk, 2014b). Van der Wal adds a section on the relevance of his findings for some of the current problems of the EU. However, I leave it to you to read the book and consider his suggestions. It is clear that the departure of the United Kingdom and the presence of a strong pro-Europe president in France provide new opportunities for the EU to reform itself.

This book can help us to understand the current world and the processes of integration and disintegration. The EU is more than a trade agreement and as mentioned economic and monetary integration requires further political integration to put the European model on the world map. We should remember our successes and in Africa, Asia and elsewhere the creation of new blocks is taking place. As mentioned the European Union is a model for some of these countries, for example for the African Union and ASEAN (Van Dijk, 2014c).

Secondly, it is interesting that Van der Wal emphasizes our common culture, with shared norms and values that we want to share with the world and promote. The Enlightenment and Romanticism did not just exist in Italy or Germany. They influenced large numbers of people in Europe and outside Europe.

I hope the book will inspire a generation of young people, called the Erasmus generation. Not just because Erasmus was a great philosopher of the Renaissance, preceding the Enlightenment, but also because they benefited from an EU program to allow students to study outside their original European country. Then you learn that Spanish people are not very different and that you share a lot with a student from Eastern Europe. Students are willing to think about the future and ask critical questions, like where we should go with our European project.

Caroline Gruyter (in NRC, 22-4-2018) also speaks of the Erasmus generation as young people willing to change things. She gives the example of the students in the US who started to organize demonstrations against the use of arms, “because if we don’t do it nobody is going to do it”. The same applies for achieving a United Europe!


Davies, N. (1997) Europe, a history. London: Pimlico.

Gruyter, C. (2018) De opmars van de Erasmusgeneratie. NRC, 22-4-2018: 15.

Mak, G. (2017; 31st print) In Europa. Amsterdam: Olympus.

Van der Wal, G.K. (2018) Op zoek naar de ziel van Europa, een cultuurfilosofische verkenning. Den Bosch: Gompel & Svacina. (150 pages in Dutch for 19.90 euros).

Van Dijk, M.P. (2012) Mijn Europa ideaal,

Van Dijk, M.P. (2014a) Asean, politieke en economische integratie en de reactie van China, Internationale Spectator, Volume 68 (9), pp. 56-60.

Van Dijk, M.P. (2014b) Hou de Europese droom levend!, also published by the European Movement: Europa en de wereld, The Hague 2014: VDE/EBN.

Van Dijk, M.P. (2014c) Asean, and China’s relations with these countries, the political, economic and financial consequences of creating one big market, pp. 24-27. Jakarta: INA Magazine (

Meine Pieter van Dijk
Professor of Urban Management at ISS of Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands
mpvandijk (at)

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