Learning to love Europe

Learning to love Europe


Essay by Michael Breisky, published:May 7, 2021



Abstract at the end of the essay


Dreaming of a strong Europe was yesterday. Not only has the commitment to a “never again war in Europe!” faded after the watershed year of 1989, but above it is the political homogeneity among the member states that has diminished in the course of EU enlargements. Because none of Europe’s external threats appear to be so dramatic as to make us close the ranks, there is no longer enough European solidarity to bridge the divides of difference. Thus, today, the elation of Sunday speeches on Europe is ground down as early as Monday morning by the travails of bureaucratic and antisocial everyday experience.


In his essay “Rethinking Europe” the German political scientist Peter Graf Kielmansegg [1] found the way out of this dilemma by proposing a new mode of European integration: instead of dogmatic priorities such as the consolidation of the European legal order, institutional expansion and an internal European development policy, there should now be “pragmatic cooperation” in projects supported by a comprehensive European consensus. If such cooperation is prudent and appropriate, more and stronger impulses for the “development of the self-image of Europeans as Europeans” could emanate from the accomplishment of such tasks than from all advertising for the integration of Europe in the previous dogmatic style. This self-image would then probably also be the pivotal point in the question of solidarity.


Culture as a bridging issue

It is completely uncertain today, whether the dogmatic path of European “deepening”, the consolidation of law and similar “hard” issues can ever gain momentum again: hardly any member state will take the risk of being outvoted, considering the low level of solidarity and the constant threat of seeing European law enforced in a strict and compulsory manner.  In contrast, cooperation based on pragmatism and consensus would fare well without legal pressure, as it would come around “softly”. In fact, there are issues of this kind in all policy areas, from the current topic of joint prevention of  all sorts of natural and man-made disaster to foreign policy, probably the most important area of pan-European cooperation. However, the most original area of “soft” issues is culture – a topic that has been on the EU agenda only to a very limited extent in the absence of primary competence. Seeing this as a grave mistake was already stated in 1992 by Jacques Delors,  then President of the European Commission: “If in the ten years ahead of us we do not succeed in giving Europe its soul, a spiritual dimension, true significance, then we will have been wasting our time. That is the lesson of my experience. Europe cannot live by legal arguments and economic know-how alone.“[2]

Delors’ path to the soul of Europe can only go through culture. And so pragmatic cooperation in culture can and should become the focus of the new mode of integration at least as long as further institutional deepening has to pause for lack of homogeneity and solidarity. This approach has good chances to succeed, because pragmatic cultural projects pursued by consensus escape most concerns of legal  competence. Moreover, Brexit  made one barrier to European cultural work disappear: the British had always been at odds with this issue., precisely because culture is the most important engine for a sense of community that includes more than free trade.


Learning to love Europe

European cultural policy does not have to start from scratch – there are already a number of particularly successful projects; the most successful of these is probably the Erasmus program, which promotes the exchange of students and young entrepreneurs with grants and scholarships. Now the essay contest for schoolchildren, which began in Germany in 1953 as the “European Contest,” should be elevated to the EU level; it is to be hoped that it will also attract interest from adults, as is the case with the “Spelling Contest” in the U.S., which is endowed with large cash prizes. Then we already have EU-programs with exemplary structures, such as LEADER, which has been promoting innovative actions in rural areas since 1991; let us expand them! And by the way, If cultural policy is to be given a much higher priority in order to turn the bureaucratic monster, that is the EU today, into a beloved Europe, then also Austria could play a comparatively large role in this process; not so much with what genuine substance remains of the reputation of the “cultural nation of Austria” today, but through its tradition of pragmatic thinking outside the box. In this regard, both fundamental and concrete points should are outlined here:


Europe’s cultural sense of community

A truly European cultural policy not only needs certainty about its methods and contents, it will also have to build up and consolidate its own status as a focal point of European policy in general. The way to this goal is opened by applying the “Böckenförde dictum” to the European Union: According to the expert in German constitutional law Wolfram Böckenförde, “the liberal constitutional state… lives from preconditions which it cannot guarantee itself”, meaning “a unifying ethos, a kind of “public spirit” among those who live in this state. The question then is: What is the source of this ethos? […] one can say: first of all the culture truly lived. But then what are the factors and elements of this culture? There again we are indeed with sources such as Christianity, Enlightenment and humanism.“[3]

The EU has so far remained an elite project and thus, from its origin, not a state in Böckenförde’s sense. However, from the outside, due to the present geo-political loss of status of Europe, there is a process of development in the direction of a sense of community, which should make it – similar to the development in states before – more and more the cultural carrier of European constitutional structures. So far, this process seems to have been successful rather in a negative definition of Europe, i.e. in the awareness of what Europe is not and what it does not want to become, even in comparison to other large cultural areas. In other words, Europe needs to define itself more positively through its identity, which is probably only possible through this sense of community. Its absence was made abundantly clear in the early course of the Covid 19 pandemic: in the event of a crisis, national compartmentalization boomed again.

Regardless of constitutional issues, identity is the primary thing, while the legal system and the economic system are only parts of it. As long as this hierarchy is not anchored in the consciousness of Europeans, they will not be able to benefit from a sense of community – although a unifying factor, it is an element very difficult to grasp in legal terms because it belongs very strongly to the emotional sphere. It should not be overlooked, however,  that common sense is nothing static, as it is engaged in a constant discourse with the most diverse people. With other words, by putting its hand on the pulse of the population, it assists democracy.


Use of “soft” terms

What has been said here about the role of the cultural sense of community already shows that the trend toward the consolidation of law in the EU, hitherto the dominating feature of European integration, is about to create a vacuum, insofar as beyond the limits of the law’s coercive power there is nothing that could keep chaotic arbitrariness at bay. Between these extremes, however, there should very well be guidance that is both “soft” and effective. The warning of the Islam scientist Thomas Bauer against the “un-ambiguation of the world”[4] helps to understand the problem: He has shown that for quite some time the social discourse has been avoiding ambiguous terms. Following a tendency toward scientification and juridification, one apparently wants to limit oneself to unambiguous and precisely defined terms or topics; this now leads to a dangerous “loss of ambiguity,” which increasingly polarizes society. What falls by the wayside are, above all, cultural themes such as morality, spirituality and religion, identity and, last but not least, beauty – things with diffuse edges, of which one knows what they mean, but which are nevertheless difficult to define precisely. Now, well-understood ambiguity is actually exactly what Europe is all about, and wherein the binding effect of common sense should lie. According to Ludwig Wittgenstein, the highest form of such constructive ambiguity is found in satire and wit, probably the best means to understand truly complex things. Turning to the EU, its lack of humor might put it even on its deathbed!

As I have pointed out in another writing[5], this cultural sense of community is by no means toothless, once the club-question is asked, “Are you one of us?” This question allows civil society  to fill the void between law and arbitrariness with soft power, be it through pointed  assistance or be it through the threat of social, i.e., extra-legal, exclusion. In this way, in the non-public sphere, where the legal leeway is large, the question “is this still European?” can be used to enforce what cannot be legally ordered, i.e., things like the preservation of tradition, respect for all religions, but also European aesthetics and apparent trifles like dress codes or forms of greeting.

Politically, this requires the clear recognition and promotion of “communal” forms of expression as well as the safeguarding of the autonomy of associations in the civil society  – all of this, of course, only within constitutional means.


The new regionalism

First impressions of the aftermath of the Corona crisis show that power always strives for maximum efficiency, just as water knows how to find its way. Power therefore comes where the “hard” competences are to be found, which do not tolerate ambiguity, and which are granted the strongest enforcement power by the threatening coercive force of law. Since the long-gone days of the night-watchman state, this is still found in Europe in nation states with their central governments. However, the “soft” competences, including cultural policy, where consensus is very effective and usually easier to achieve, are different: here experience says that the smaller a political unit, the greater the likelihood of its cultural homogeneity and thus of achieving consensus. This finger-pointing toward the traditional, relatively small regions of Europe is strengthened by another consequence of the Corona crisis, namely civil society moving together toward regional and local resilience – an economic and social phenomenon that takes place likewise in “soft” matters and is also likely to influence the political relationship between the nation-state and its regions. Moreover, in the social sphere, regional differentiations have always been called for; and if in the economic sphere state governments were able to pledge the greatest financial resources for reconstruction after the losses of the lockdown, then the necessary regional differentiations demand the involvement of regional bodies in order to help the handling of these pledges. Naturally, such regional differentiation helps the cultural sense of community to become more concrete, and so the new pragmatic EU cooperation on “soft” issues should give priority to regional programs.

Within EU-institutions, this should get the EU’s Committee of the Regions out of its slumber by giving it the financial resources to promote the regions’ European programs.


Internalizing Europe emotionally

As the EU continues to be generally associated with complexity difficult to understand and with an extreme amount of bureaucracy, a primary goal of European cultural policy must be to find ways of presenting the EU in a simple, generally understandable way that also fosters emotional ties. On the one hand, this requires a different language – instead of legally precise terms, it should now be possible to communicate with ambiguous but generally understandable terms. On the other hand, some psychological tricks that increase comprehension and memorability should also come into play. These include the “triumvirate theory,” i.e., the experience that when listing many memorable things, one should limit oneself to three items, if at all possible – after all, more than that number is difficult to remember.


A triumvirate of values

The EU is a community of values. According to Article 2 of the EU Treaty, it is based on “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to all Member States in a society characterized by pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men.” The comprehensiveness of this catalog with its very numerous principles may be necessary for the interpretation of EU legal texts, but from a cultural policy perspective this enumeration is difficult to convey. However, all these principles can be justified by three basic values; these are “guaranteed diversity on an equal footing“, in other words the formula of “diversity in equality and security“. In fact, every one of the many principles in Article 2 can be seen as a combination of the three basic values, although their respective weight will differ. Simplified, the cited principles can be assigned in detail as follows:

Diversity is the central core value, mainly expressed in the first four principles of the cited article;

safeguarding it speaks to the need to enforce diversity and is found in the following three principles;

Equality summarizes the remaining principles.

As stated, most of the principles rely on a combination of the core values. For example, the democratic principleexpresses the need to secure diversity of political views in such an equal manner that allows diversity to be effectively implemented. Tolerance expresses the combination of diversity and equality, and solidarity can be seen as a form of securing diversity in a sustainable way. Even the cultivation of cultural traditions, which is not mentioned in Art.2, can be covered by the three basic values, since avoiding a cultural vacuum will promote political stability and will thus also generate security in diversity.

What is to be achieved here is anchoring the formula of the three basic values in everyday language use. Appropriate initiatives are probably mainly up to the European Parliament


A triumvirate for exemplary Europeans

Precisely because the EU is so strongly associated with abstract rules and, not least, with faceless bureaucratism, it would do it great good to create European heroic legends of a contemporary kind by elevating exemplary people of the past “to the honor of European altars,” so to speak. As with the fundamental values of the EU treaty colloquially reduced to three, a triumvirate of complementary personalities one can identify with is easier to convey than a lengthy list of such personalities.

And here, too, it would probably be appropriate for this European process of “canonization” to be decided by the European Parliament. It would also certainly be an advantage in terms of publicity to give the European Parliament the opportunity to confirm or review this triumvirate about every ten to twenty years and thus to take account of the spirit of the times – obviously, such a process would become a very popular end in itself. On a purely personal basis, I could imagine a triumvirate of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Pope John XXIII and Anne Frank: Mozart, because he knew how to convey the ideals of the European Enlightenment in a wonderful way with his music that transcended all language barriers; “Il Papa Giovanni”, because he made the European virtues of tolerance and dialogue the core message of the dawn of new times (“Aggiornamento”) with an affectionate grandfatherly air and without abandoning cultural identity; and Anne Frank, because this young woman knew how to preserve confidence in her diary against a terrible background and conveyed tolerant humanity in a particularly touching way.


A Hall of Fame

While it would be the direct purpose of this triumvirate to promote historic individuals, but also Europe to  levels, it is also important to emphasize contemporary merits. The European Parliament should nominate a certain maximum number of living personalities for their services to Europe to a kind of “Hall of Honor” for life, in the manner of the “List of Living Treasures” some Asian countries have established. Iideally, every region should see itself represented in this circle.


A European youth anthem

With Beethoven’s setting of the “Ode to Joy”, Europe already has an official anthem. Although it is only played instrumentally – Schiller’s text was not suitable for the majority – it is very solemn, as befits a state that is at peace within itself. Hopefully, Europe will one day achieve such a consciousness of self-evidence – today, however, it is still quite far away from this, as the already mentioned gap between diversity and solidarity shows.

Now, especially an anthem can help to overcome this gap when producing a special mood, carrying great optimism for the future and promoting a rallying movement. It ishould be obvious, therefore, to have something like a European youth anthem next to the official anthem. It should have a rousing melody from the very first bars, which would also be gladly sung without instrumental accompaniment – just as young people often do on informal occasions.

Similarly, as the German Empire and Austria-Hungary had different texts to the same melody of the old Haydn anthem, young Europeans of different mother tongues should be able to sing this anthem to different texts. A certain harmonization of the texts according to language groups would correspond to this, for example with keyword-like specifications in a certain order of stanzas. It should also be possible to supplement the anthem with national or regional stanzas. And again, the European Parliament would be the most suitable forum for deciding on the melody and coordinating the texts by language groups – all this within the framework of maximum public participation in a European competition.

The right melody, by the way, in my personal opinion, would be Figaro’s aria “Nun vergiss leises Fleh’n” from the opera “The Marriage of Figaro” – I feel in it at least as much dynamic spirit of departure as in the Marseillaise.


Religion becomes important again

One cannot talk about culture and the future in Europe without taking religion into account – a topic that at best made it into the footnotes in the first decades of the EU, as it expanded its institutions. For meanwhile, following the principles of the Enlightenment, the legal order of the EU and its member states has so radically enforced the long overdue separation of church and state that the result is an “arbitrariness of values”. However, as already explained, this is incompatible with the essence of the sense of community, and it will also ultimately deprive the law of its basis. Two aspects must be considered here:

On the one hand, the future role of Christianity as one of the most important forces in the emergence of the European idea is not to be measured only by the current weakness of the Catholic and Protestant churches – the former chokes, similar to the sale of indulgences 500 years ago, on the abuse scandal, the latter mainly on its chronic deficits in the mystical dimensions of religion. However, it is the emphasis on mysticism that increases today the attractiveness of both the Orthodox churches and the Evangelical free churches. The latter enjoy the greatest popularity in precisely those circles that were already particularly close to Jesus Christ’s heart – the outcasts and social losers[6]. In times of increasing crises of meaning and as recent developments in the U.S. show, European politics will be held to give greater consideration to the needs of the Christian population.

On the other hand, also the role of Muslims who have been living here for some decades, must be considered.  This is all the more important in view of Europe’s demographic deficit, continuing to be made up primarily by Muslim immigrants with completely different cultural background. The relationship between all Muslims living here and the established core population, which – consciously or unconsciously – is largely shaped by the Judeo-Christian heritage, will thus depend on how religious tolerance is actually practiced by both sides. The European constitutional state will not be able to leave this entirely to the sense of community, for tolerance is a commodity that is as precious as it is delicate – if only requiring a great deal of intellectual energy or curiosity, which today is wasted on advertising and shallow fun[7].


State, law and religion

The reason for state intervention may be briefly explained here: The state must promote the ability of its citizens to gain so much certainty of orientation in their thinking, encompassing all areas of life, that in the abundance of possible behavior patterns does not lead to chaotic arbitrariness – otherwise one would soon run out of intellectual energy and then fall under the wheels of aggression or flight, when untamed biological primal functions come to the surface. After all, history tells very clearly that the downfall of everything valuable happens much easier and faster than its build-up. Sustainable politics will be well advised, therefore, to express a certain preference among the multitude of current worldviews and ideologies, but in the interest of European pluralism it must abstain from legal coercion in this matter. Instead, it must supply information that helps individual orientation. For better public visibility, non-binding references and gestures to the locally dominant religion would correspond to this. Religion comes in, because every (high) religion represents a unified and living body of thought that has something concrete to say about almost all areas of life; and because the locally most widespread religion will usually also enjoy the necessary public visibility.  This local primacy rests on the assumption that no religion could have attained sustained support for the whole range of its doctrines and practices if it would not have developed the most comprehensive and credible advice for most people of the region. The individual human being will often not be able to follow this advice in everything, but knowing its general direction will help him to find pragmatic solutions for exceptional situations. In this sense, religious instruction in state schools for all major creeds and pure externalities such as religious holiday ordinances and the ringing of church bells are very valuable, since they point to spiritual orientation in general.

But then, what about pluralism? First of all, it should be clear that a decline of the majority religion will also harm members of minority religions, for the latter will usually experience a similar situation not much later, as many examples show. Even most agnostics agree that any kind of publicly promoted visibility of religiosity is better than a religious vacuum.


A new understanding of religious tolerance

The state lending its hand to the visibility of a particular religion is certainly a privilege. However, this would be justifiable if the special visibility of a religion does not rest on its claim to supreme truth, but exclusively by its apparently special suitability to the needs of the people in a particular region. Members of religious minorities living there can then trust that they will enjoy a similar position anywhere else, wherever they form the dominant religious community. Outside the local context with its special cultural experiences, all religions would now be of equal value, and from this mutual esteem it would have to follow that missionizing or proselytizing runs against public order.

To close the circle to the Muslims of Europe here: The principles of pluralism at one hand and increased visibility of a religion at the other would be compatible, if one were to tie in with Islam’s distinction, unknown in Christianity, between areas of Islam, areas of contractual peace and areas of war. Because of the book religions dominating Europe, Islam has hitherto conceded it to be an “area of contractual peace” (Dar al ahd), granting it the same superior position in the public sphere that Islam claims for itself in its own area. And it did so, at least in the past, at home in a fundamentally tolerant manner, as the quiet flourishing of Christian and Jewish communities under Islamic rule has proven through many centuries.

It would therefore be most appropriate for the EU to conclude “tolerance treaties” with states of Islamic or other cultures, since such treaties would be perfectly compatible with the achievements of religious freedom and the separation of church and state (an outline of such treaties is outlined in the appendix).[7] The EU is therefore called upon to take action here on behalf of its member states and, in negotiations with third countries, to concretize its interest in the mutual safeguarding of their religious-cultural status quo as well as the principles of a “contractual religious peace”. Whether such treaties are concluded is, of course, a political question. However, the respective answers to them are, in any case, the best indicator of one’s own readiness for tolerance – and this applies to the people and their governments both outside and inside the EU.


So much for some ideas on a truly European cultural policy. It is up to the European institutions of the Parliament, the Commission and the Committee of the Regions to stimulate the inventiveness of European citizens to more and better ideas to the point that the old dream of Lighthouse Europe becomes reality.



1.DEFINES the concept of “Treaty Peace”.

2.ENCOURAGES the religious communities traditionally established in one’s own territory,

– to recognize the territory of the other party as an “area of contractual peace”,

– to respect there all locally established forms of religious practice, and

– to refrain from any active promotion of religious conversion.

3.CONFIRMS the multi-cultural and multi-religious status quo (“Berlin-Kreuzberg can remain, but no new Kreuzbergs are to be created”).

4.AGREES not to provide political assistance to one’s own citizens if they violate these principles in the other state (i.e., in the case of “religious or cultural troublemaking”).

5.AGREES that the cultural traditions of states are strongly influenced by the religious communities that have been prevalent on their territories for a long time; that these traditions continue to provide ethical guidance indispensable for the peace and well-being of states; and that it is therefore in the mutual interest that, in bilateral relations to stipulate

– the freedom of religion and freedom of opinion, as enshrined in international law,

– the respect of public order in general

– the respect of public practice of religion in a manner that does justice to cultural traditions.

6.AGREE TO INCOURAGE research and educational institutions of both sides in cultural “bridge-building”, especially by highlighting and propagating commonalities and correspondences in religion and culture.

7.CLAUSE FOR A REVISION after approx.10 years.





Because the homogeneity among the EU member states is decreasing due to the EU enlargements, the “deepening” of institutions is faltering and further legal consolidation is not possible for some time. The European idea must therefore build on projects capable of consensus, for which pragmatic cooperation in the area of culture is particularly suitable. The goal is the formation of a European sense of community among its citizens according to the Böckenförde-dictum, under the motto “Learning to love Europe”.

The cultural sense of community stands as soft power between the hard power of legal coercion and chaotic arbitrariness. Its advantage is positive handling of soft (diffuse) concepts (e.g. beauty, identity, homeland). Regionalism and strict subsidiarity are helpful.

Concrete projects: Colloquial simplification of complex legal matters, e.g. “pluralitz in equality and security” as a paraphrase of the 13 principles of Art. 2 EU Treaty; personalization through a symbolic triumvirate of historic and exemplary Europeans to be elected, similarly also regional role models in a “Hall of Honor”; a rousing youth anthem.

Religions: recurring importance in fighting disorientation and nihilism; absolute religious freedom and tolerance, but state assistance with regard to the public visibility of the religion with the best local acceptance; the Islam model of “areas of contractual peace”; tolerance treaties based on this model.

Appendix: Elements for Tolerance Treaty



1] in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” from 20.4.2020

2] according to “Summary of Addresses by President Delors to the Churches”, issued by the Commission of the European Communities on May 14, 1992 (No. 704E/92):

[3] Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, article “Freedom is contagious” in: Frankfurter Rundschau  2.11.2010 (quoted from Wikipedia).

[4] Thomas Bauer, essay „Die Vereindeutigung der Welt“ (On the loss of ambiguity and diversity) 2018 Reclam Verlag.

[5] Michael Breisky, Renovatio-Analyses 1/2021, https://renovatio.org/2021/03/neue-publikation-michael-breisky-der-gemeinsinn-als-ethos-des-gemeinwesens/


[6] Cf. Michel Houellebecq, A Little Worse. New Interventions, Cologne 2020.

[7] Michael Breisky et al. in „Kein Frieden ohne Toleranz, keine Toleranz ohne Neugier“ (no peace without tolerance, no tolerance without curiosity), lecture at symposium “Kultur des Friedens” September 2000 in St. Johann i.P, https://www.breisky.at/de/2000-kein-friede-ohne-toleranz-keine-toleranz-ohne-neugier/