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By Ben Ryan


The Montréal Review, October 2016



"As Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI continually reiterated, Europe should not turn its back on its Christian roots which have shaped its values and institutions. This does not mean a return to Christendom but a return to a deeper and wider understanding of what it means to be a European."

Professor John Loughlin, Blackfriars, Oxford and Emeritus Fellow, St Edmund’s College, Cambridge


Following the chaos of the Second World War the first major step on the way to what is now the EU was the 1951 Treaty of Paris that established the ECSC (European Coal and Steel Community) among the ‘original six’ (West Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Belgium). In 1958, this was updated by the Treaty of Rome to become the EEC (European Economic Community).

The first expansion of this small club came in 1973 with the accession of the UK, Ireland and Denmark. This was followed by Greece in 1981, and, once they had come out of their respective dictatorships, Spain and Portugal in 1986. The real growth, though, came after the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 that established the European Union and European Monetary Union (EMU). Following that change the EU was joined, in 1995, by Austria, Sweden and Finland and, in 2004, in a giant single accession, by Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Malta, Cyprus, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

The process of enlargement (to date) was completed by the accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 and Croatia in 2013, with the Lisbon Treaty coming into force in 2009. Each new treaty and accession has changed the character of the European project such that it can be difficult to detect accurately the original priorities and influences. It is a fair question to wonder whether the founding fathers of the European project would recognise the entity of today as anything for which they could have laid the ground work.


There have been several different models for a unified Europe. Most of these have, historically, taken the form of imperial projects to conquer Europe, with unity realised by military power. In the wake of the Second World War, however, there were a number of proposals and proponents of a more peaceful unity stemming from very different political and philosophical traditions.

The colourfully-named Count Richard Nikolaus von Coudenhove-Kalergi was one such visionary. His father was an Austro-Hungarian diplomat and his mother the Japanese daughter of a major oil merchant and landowner. He was founder and president of the Paneuropa Union – a project aimed at unifying Europe in an “ad-hoc politicoeconomic federation”, a movement which collected a remarkable intellectual celebrity following including Richard Strauss, Albert Einstein and Paul Valéry, and even some political support, from figures including sometime French Prime Minister Aristide Briand (sometime because French politics between 1909, when he was first Prime Minister, and 1932 when he died were volatile in the extreme and Briand gained and lost power several times), and Italian foreign minister Carlo Sforza. However, despite its success in attracting a following in popular intellectual circles, the Paneuropa movement never really gained much momentum in affecting actual political change.

Neither, in practice, despite expectations to the contrary, did the Resistance movements create the networks to allow for serious political unity. There had been hopes that the interactions between different WWII Resistance groups would create meaningful connections that might inspire political dialogue. Without a common enemy, however, the networks proved too disparate, and in particular there was an irreconcilable conflict between the Communist Resistance and their support of the USSR, and the other Resistance groups that were as opposed to the communists as they had been to the Nazis.

The network which did inspire the model of European integration that took off in the 1950s was that of Christian Democrat parties and politicians. One manifestation of this was the role, identified by Wolfram Kaiser, played by the Nouvelles Équipes Internationales (NEI) and Geneva Circle of Christian Democrats. Those networks provided discussion forums and introduced key Catholic political figures to one another. So, for example, French Prime Minister Robert Schuman’s proposal for the ECSC came as no surprise to the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer since it had often been discussed in NEI and Geneva Circle meetings even before the Second World War. Integration can only have been eased by such connections – for example Josef Müller who served as a link between the German CSU and French MRP Christian Democrat parties and met with Pope Pius XII, Italian Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi (6) and Schuman between 1945 and 1946. These links allowed for a common ideology to form between Catholic politicians who, following the war, found themselves in a position of unprecedented power and with opportunity to express that ideology in new forms of integration.

This position of power cannot be understated. Though other political parties, notably the Socialists, played their part in early European integration, it was the Christian Democrats who dominated the politics of the original six members. This can be easily seen by looking at the signatories for the six countries of the first two treaties of European integration (Paris in 1951 and Rome in 1958). The Treaty of Rome, for example, with the exception of Paul-Henri Spaak and the two French signatories (all Socialists) was signed almost entirely by Catholic members of Christian Democrat parties. Spaak’s fellow signatory from Belgium, Baron Jean Charles Snoy et D’Oppeurs was a Catholic politician with expertise in Thomist philosophy. Luxembourg’s Joseph Bech was another leading Catholic figure, as was Dutch signatory Joseph Luns. At Paris, both Belgian signatories were Catholics with interest in Catholic social teaching and again the Dutch provided a Catholic signatory. In both treaties Catholic politicians far outnumbered the others. Among the leading figures (De Gasperi, Schuman, Adenauer) so pronounced were their respective commitments to Catholicism that they were nicknamed the ‘Black Front’.

It was from this Christian Democrat setting that the ECSC and EEC came through the treaties of Paris and Rome. That was the political context that defined the early European project – six countries dominated by Christian Democratic parties in the afterward of a destructive conflict that had discredited nationalist parties and an emerging Cold War in which socialism was viewed with significant suspicion by many in Western Europe and by the backers of European integration in the USA and UK.


The essential content of what characterised the early European project can be summarised in three areas:

1. Solidarity

2. Subsidiarity

3. Explicit moral/religious vision

Each of these three areas has different components within it but together they characterise the essential ideology of the European project in the 1950s.


Europe will not be made all at once or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.

Those words are drawn from the famous “Schuman Declaration” delivered in May 1950. This public declaration by Robert Schuman, then French Foreign Minister, led directly to the negotiations which culminated in the Paris treaty and the establishment of the ECSC.

The explicit aim referred to repeatedly throughout the early integration process was that of solidarity. What that actually means is less obvious but it seems to have a number of elements – one was peace (or solidarity between nations for mutual benefit). A second was solidarity with workers and the poor (i.e. not so much between nations as between classes). Finally, there was a concern to create political harmony by limiting the power of national politicians.

Peace between nations (and particularly France and Germany) was an obvious starting point for European integration. The failure after the Great War to maintain peace for even a generation and the extraordinary scale of not only military but civilian death in the Second World War made peace an absolute priority. What marked out early European integration was the extraordinary commitment that extended beyond treaties to assuring a basis for peace by making militarisation via coal and steel impossible. In Schuman’s words, “the solidarity in production thus established will make it plain that any war between France and Germany becomes not only unthinkable but materially impossible,” because the ECSC required a pooling of sovereignty over the two industries necessary for arming a military and prevented Germany from rapidly outstripping the French industrial sector.

This was a remarkable development, one that surprised and delighted the Americans, who had never thought the French would accept any such proposal, never mind propose it. Crucially, the aim was always peace and solidarity; the potential economic gains were a secondary objective. The German chancellor Adenauer made it quite clear in the Bundestag in 1952 that he felt all six governments involved “realise… that the political goal, the political meaning of the European Coal and Steel Community, is infinitely larger than its economic purpose.”

Peace was the primary aim of solidarity, but that did not mean prosperity was excluded, and indeed a concern for prosperity was particularly clear in the Treaty of Rome that established the EEC (European Economic Community) in 1958. However, it is notable that this prosperity was conceived differently than it seems to be today. The focus was on making workers and citizens wealthier, healthier and safer whereas today’s focus seems to have lost the recognition that economic prosperity only matters if it improves the lives of citizens.

The commitment is explicitly to “the constant improvement of the living and working conditions of their [member states’] peoples.” This commitment is referred to extensively in both the Treaty of Rome and of Paris (see, for example, Articles 2-3 of both treaties), and in Article 117 of Rome which states that “Member states agree upon the need to promote improved working conditions and an improved standard of living for workers.”

It is something of an irony that the founders of the European project were the architects and greatest supporters of the developing welfare states in their respective countries, when today Europe seems to be one of the threats to the welfare state – whether in the form of immigration seeming to undermine the system in the UK, or in austerity being imposed on Greece and Spain at the expense of parts of the welfare state. Certainly that (admittedly sometimes rather paternalist) commitment to the welfare state was present in the early stages of European integration.

A final constituent element of solidarity is the commitment to political harmony. In contemporary debates over the EU much is made of the “democratic deficit” – that is, the extent to which European institutions fail adequately to demonstrate their democratic accountability. The early European institutions were designed in part precisely to avoid democratic clashes of the Westminster parliamentary style. The Commission was meant to be a-political and based on consensus (there was also no majority voting). This reflects a wider concern among the founders of the European project to prioritise harmony (a term that appears remarkably frequently across the two treaties in question).

On a broader scale, there was a deliberate intention to limit the power and sovereignty of nation states. Following two world wars and, from the perspective of the Catholic Church and Catholic politicians, a long culture war, the temptation to blame the state for the ills of the modern world was high. Indeed, it was the deliberate efforts at curtailing national power and sovereignty (along, interestingly, with a fear of how the unions would respond) that prevented the UK’s Labour post-war government from signing the treaties at the time.


Subsidiarity, according to the glossary of the EU website, is a concept that:

[E]nsures that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen and that constant checks are made to verify that action at Union level is justified in light of the possibilities available at national, regional or local level. Specifically, it is the principle whereby the Union does not take action (except in the areas that fall within its exclusive competence), unless it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level.

Interestingly, despite being at the heart of the European debate since the foundation of the European project, the term only first appeared in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 which established the European Union. The term was adapted from the 1931 Papal Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (QA). Wolfram Kaiser notes that at least as early as the Nouvelles Équipes Internationales (NEI) congress in Tours, 1953 (a meeting of Christian Democrat politicians from across Western Europe), the French politician Pierre-Henri Teitgen suggested basing Christian Democratic policy on Quadragesimo Anno. It has an explicit grounding, therefore, in Catholic Social Teaching (CST).

Critically not only was this seen as an issue of governance, but one of justice. Indeed, in QA Pope Pius XI summarised the concept of subsidiarity in terms of justice:

It is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organisations can do.

This is tied into a broader conception of how society should function. Christian democracy as an ideology emphasised ‘personalism’, the idea that all people are fundamentally relational and tied to others. Humans are not atomized individuals but are essentially bound into social structures and particularly families. The emphasis on supporting families and local communities while resisting centralised power found in the doctrine of subsidiarity is one that it is critical to the model of Christian democracy and, therefore, the early European project.


To say that there was a distinct moral and religious vision can sound more sectarian than perhaps was the reality. So far this part of the essay has argued that the early European project was defined largely by the priorities of Christian Democrats, with a focus on solidarity and subsidiarity that was based on a particular conception of justice and morality. However, it was never intended to be exclusive in its focus. De Gasperi characterised the Christian aspect of the project by saying:

When I affirm that Christianity is at the origin of the European Civilisation I do not intend to introduce any kind of exclusive confessional criterion into the evaluation of our history. I refer to the common European heritage, to that unitary morality that puts emphasis on the human being and his responsibility.

This, then, was a vision that came out of a particular ideology and religious tradition that emphasised human responsibility, but was not intended to be limited to any one group. The early European project has been called by the academic Scott Thomas “an act of theopolitical imagination.” (Scott Thomas, The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations.) Even in its earliest days, when the key protagonists were overwhelmingly Catholics from Christian Democrat parties there was a broader sense among observers of the necessity of a legitimately moral and spiritual vision.

Winston Churchill, no Christian Democrat, and certainly no Catholic, commented in his famous Zurich speech:

We must build a United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living. The process is simple. All that is needed is the resolve of hundreds of millions of men and women to do right instead of wrong and gain as their reward blessing instead of cursing… There can be no revival of Europe without a spiritually great France and a spiritually great Germany.

There was something of a consensus in the 1940s and 50s, even among those countries that did not join the early integration process, that this was a body that, while it might have particular weaknesses (the Americans were concerned about the possible creation of business cartels, the British about a European bloc inimical to their own interests), was certainly a project of moral integrity and importance. This sense – of the critical part that morality, spirituality and indeed religiously-inspired-politics – is something that has significantly waned since the origins of the European Project.

(click here to read the full text)


Ben Ryan is a researcher at Theos. He read Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Cambridge and has an MSc in European Studies from the LSE European Institute. He is the author of A Very Modern Ministry: Chaplaincy in the UK.


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