Writing in 2000, the then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that ‘Europe is a geographical concept only in a way that is entirely secondary. Europe is not a continent that can be comprehended neatly in geographical terms. It is a cultural and historical concept’. At its heart were States where Roman Catholicism had played a notable historical and philosophical role. Their experience of the Nation State had said more about its frailties than its virtues, and the experience of war, occupation and defeat had done enough to convince its founding fathers that there had to be a better, more cooperative, way forward. It was out of that that the EU would emerge. Not having shared any of these experiences, the UK did not join the initial group, and never felt comfortable with the larger one; its culture and history, whilst intimately linked with ‘Europe’ were not sufficient to make up for the different experiences of modernity. The English had no experience of the nation state as a failure; the Scots and the Ulstermen had different experiences still. As for the Welsh, well I pass by without comment.
The founding fathers of the EU assumed what was true for them was true for others, and that what was true of the past would be true of the future – that is that there was a fundamental compatibility between the moral heritage of Christianity and that of the European Enlightenment. That turned out to be somewhat optimistic. What is sometimes called the ‘European model’ – that is a social order which combines a sound economy with social justice, political pluralism with tolerance, generosity and openness – actually depended on the values of a Christian civilization, and without the latter, it is far from clear why the former should survive. Speaking of this to the diplomatic corps in 2007, Benedict XVI said that Europe’s Christian roots represented a ‘dynamic component of our civilization as we move forward into the third millennium’ – the leaven, if you like, in the loaf. It is fine to be open to other cultures, but we should not forget the values of our culture; it is good to be rational, but we should not make the mistake of thinking that only things which can be measured are valuable.
The countries which came into the EU after the fall of Communism did so on the back of the failure of a whole system. Much is said about its economic failure, but it is equally clear that it was a social and moral failure – and that these things are linked. Much work has been done on the economic failures of communism, but less on its social and moral failings. It was not simply that it was based on a false economic dogmatism, it also failed utterly as a moral system: there was no respect for human rights or the liberty of the individual, and no recognition that man was more than a cog in an economic machine. As the Pope said back in 2007, the moral failure saw the drying up of souls and the destruction of a moral conscience.
The EU which they joined had, by that time, also come under the sway of secular materialism, knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing. If we are to judge by the Referendum campaign, even the ‘Remain’ side saw it primarily in economic and not moral terms. Economics is not a science which wins hearts and minds. It remains to be seen whether, without the UK, it will be easier for those in the EU who do believe in its Christian heritage to reaffirm it, but it may well be that things have gone too far for that.