The Values of Europe (Mini-series): Balancing universalist and particularist influences; Navigating uniformity and flexibility

Professor Ronan McCrea argues that an understanding of the EU as a polity based exclusively on shared liberal democratic values obscures the tension between universalist and specific influences within the Union, and explores the limits of the shared values the EU can insist upon, while sustaining the integration project.

As Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union says, the EU is a union of values. It is an integration project ‘founded on respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights…’. It is also an integration project that sprang from horror at the destructive conflicts between European nations that characterised the first half of the twentieth century and for many of its supporters, the Union is, in addition, a post-national project, dedicated to countering the damaging effects of nationalism.

Viewed in this way, the Union can be regarded as a polity characterised by what Habermas described as ‘constitutional patriotism’, that is a form of patriotism that focuses on shared liberal democratic values rather than particular cultural or ethnic identities.

However, in reality, the relationship between the European Union and liberal democratic, post-national, values is much more complex and is characterised by constant tension between universalist and specific influences and between the need for uniformity and flexibility on matters of political values.

Between universalist and specific influences

While anyone and any state could share the values set out Article 2, the Union is not a universal project, but one specific to Europe. There is a geographic limitation. The EU is not like the Eurovision song contest; no matter how enthusiastically it embraced Article 2 values, Australia cannot participate. Morocco’s 1987 attempt to join was nixed at the first hurdle on the basis that it was not a European country and Article 49 of the treaty restricts membership to ‘Any European State’.

The non-universality of the EU extends, to some degree, beyond geography. The Preamble to the Treaty on European Union states that the members states are ‘Drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe’, something which is, by definition, not universally shared.

As scholars such as David Miller and Charles Taylor have pointed out, there are no real-world examples of sustainable political communities that are based on shared values alone and the EU is no exception. Like any polity, the Union’s ability to legislate and govern draws on the sense of cultural overlap and affinity between its members, necessary to make it what Benedict Anderson called an ‘imagined community’, albeit one whose cultural identity is notably less thick than that of a classic nation-state.

Indeed, the history of the enlargement of the Union does show that countries whose cultural, and particularly religious, inheritance is distinct from most member states have taken longer to achieve membership. Among the former Warsaw Pact states, majority Catholic or Protestant states achieved membership before predominantly Orthodox Bulgaria and Romania and the two Catholic-majority states from the former Yugoslavia (Slovenia and Croatia) are the only ones to have achieved membership so far. Similarly, Muslim-majority Turkey, has spent decades in an accession process that is further than ever from concluding.

Even among existing Members, it is far from clear that the EU is seen as an antidote to particularistic nationalism. Indeed, for a number of states, particularly those such as Ireland and Poland which have traumatic relationships with larger neighbours, EU membership is seen as powerful step in the nationalist project of enhancing true independence rather than a negation of nationalism. The Union itself has nation-state-like symbols such as an anthem and flag, a commissioner dedicated to promoting ‘our European way of life’ and a significant constituency who regard a key element of its mission as enabling Europe to defend its interests on the world stage.

I am not suggesting that this is inherently wrong. It is probably correct that, as Miller’s work implies, it would be impossible to have a sustainable Union which attempted to sustain its political life on shared values alone and which did not draw on any particular cultural traditions. Rather my point is to highlight that shared values are only part of the EU story and, the uncomplicated association of the EU with universalist and internationalist values (a tendency seen particularly strongly amongst ‘remainers’ in the UK) is incorrect.

The limits of shared values

Indeed, as a political system with limited democratic authority, the limits of the shared values which the EU is entitled to insist upon is a key issue currently facing the Union. Some minimum core is absolutely necessary. EU membership often means being bound by fellow members’ decisions. This means that states must have confidence that all other member states share a minimum level of commitment to liberal democratic values; no EU state would, for example, be willing to risk joining an EU-like union with North Korea or Saudi Arabia. In addition, there are certain political principles such as respect for judicial independence without which the EU legal order cannot function and which therefore must be respected by all member states.

But, at the same time, the Union must also provide a sufficiently flexible framework within which states can experiment with and choose between different policy options such as more and less dirigiste economics or higher and lower taxation. Most controversially, there are significant difference between groups of member states on issues such as gay rights and multiculturalism which lie in a grey area between the minimum respect for human rights the Union is entitled to impose and the inability of the Union to impose a single social model without breaking its limited political authority.

Can, for example, the EU prevent Poland and Hungary from pursuing policies that seek to avoid becoming multicultural societies through immigration from outside the EU or from being, broadly speaking, socially-conservative to a degree that makes life less pleasant for gays and lesbians? Would such an attempt succeed or might it threaten to break the Union’s authority? Moreover, will an interventionist approach on these questions reduce the likelihood that the necessary coalition of Member States can be assembled to take decisive action against Budapest and Warsaw on issues of judicial independence?

These are open questions. Values are an important part of the EU story but only a part. Sustaining the integration project involves a delicate balance between universalist and particularist influences and between uniformity and flexibility on matters of values.

Professor Ronan McCrea is a Professor of Constitutional and European Law in the UCL Faculty of Laws.

This blog forms part of a mini-series on European values, which comprises of contributions on this subject from EU Ambassadors to the UK and UCL academics, and is running from 28 June-8 July 2022. It follows a UCL-convened Ambassadorial roundtable on the values of Europe. A recording of the full event is available here.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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