A Conference on the Past of Europe

Culture - October 18, 2022

During 2022, the centralist forces in the European Union, self-proclaimed federalists, have organised their alleged Conference on the Future of Europe, praised by Commission head Ursula von der Leyen on the occasion of her state of the Union speech last September.

The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) have called the conference a “media parade”, lacking both fairness and transparency.

A young Cambridge historian and Brussels consultant, Jose Maria Arroyo Nieto, has recently published an interesting article, where he suggests that it would have been more intelligent to hold a conference on the past of Europe.

To my knowledge, this is the first scholar having advanced such an appealing proposal; and so, it seems useful to delve into his arguments and offer some comment when needed.

His discourse starts with a rather clear fact.  The Union’s foundation after World War II is based on a myth.

Evidently, Europe and its nations are much older than hardly fifty years.  Not so long ago, a Spanish Christian-democrat politician, Esperanza Aguirre, pretended that the nation of Isabella and Cervantes had been achieved in 1812, when the first liberal constitution was passed.  Very few agreed with such statement, as Mrs. Aguirre seems to ignore that king Reccared converted to Christendom in the sixth century, during the third Council of Toledo.

The same goes for many other European nations.  Therefore, the European Union is indeed founded on a myth, since it simply does not correspond to reality that Europe started its course in history during the twentieth century.

Neither as a union, for the Middle Ages witnessed a society ruled on the continent by both the Emperor, at a civil level, and the Pope, at the spiritual level.  This situation lasted many centuries, long before the foundational myth of the European Union was launched.

Mutatis mutandis, an analogy could be made with another myth, that of the founding of human rights, also after World War II.  Both Christians and secularists defending such modern concept of rights agreed on the drafting of a charter outlining them, albeit disagreeing on their respective vision of law and order.

Mr. Arroyo quotes an author, Benedict Anderson, to sustain the problem of the Union being a myth at its origin.  According to professor Anderson, the Union is a myth because nations are a myth, as they are imaginary.

Here, I cannot agree with the Irish academic.  Unless one defends a materialistic view of things, where only matter exists and everything else is imaginary, it seems evident that nations are not imaginary.  Otherwise, one should argue that the family is also imaginary, that God is imaginary, too, or that a university or a commercial undertaking are imaginary beyond their individual professors and students, or managers and employees.

This is the old medieval discussion caused by nominalism.  According to Ockham and other franciscans influencing modern thought, reality is limited to individual particles, as opposed to Aristotelian and Thomist dominicans (and later on jesuits), who accepted the concept of universals or realities grouping several individuals, whether they existed materially or not.

However, even if nations old and new have really existed and exist today, it is true that their concept on the continent suffered a transformation during the sixteenth century, where their identity as communities submitted to both the Empire and the Papacy was progressively substituted by autonomous entities opposed to each other in a complicated balance of power.

A Spanish king like Alphonse X of Castile could aspire to rule the Empire in the classic medieval world and such situation could potentially be accepted by the other old nations.  Similarly, an Italian monk such as Thomas Aquinas could teach in Paris at complete ease.  The notion of common good presided over the European territory.

However, after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, where the principle of modern nations was altogether established in Europe, sovereigns locked their borders and relied their neighbours only to the extent that an international agreement might serve their respective specific interests.

That constitutes a different concept of nations, even a newly imagined concept, born in the imagination of modern thinkers such as Ockham, Luther, Bodin or Spinoza, and followed later on by German idealists; but a concept that has shaped political reality ever since.

Be that as it may, it seems logical, as Mr. Arroyo contends, that a conference on the future of Europe would first require a conference on its past, so that we might agree (or not) on what a common path to follow.  And such agreement should be based on mutual respect, not on deceit and imposition of one party over another.

In the absence of such agreement on the past, the result could be similar to that of human rights.  Many consented to the use of the term, but after 1968 some believe that the charter should be kept frozen; while others, more audacious, proclaim that the concept of dignity should be stretched as much as the human will might autonomously decide.

Source of the picture:  EurActiv