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In Europe, a search for what defines the EU's moral identity

Newer EU members struggle to promote a more traditional morality.

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"It would be preposterous to say, 'Well, in 40 years, you will all be Dutch countries,' " says Rick Lawson, a law professor at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. "It would ignore the fundamental differences of Europe."

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Those differences are playing out most visibly in Poland – the largest of the EU's 10 newest members, and its most religious one.

Poles were overwhelmingly supportive of joining the EU, which they did in May 2004. The move has created a reaction among conservatives who fear that their strongly Roman Catholic country's unique identity could be lost amid Europe's pervasive secularism.

In a society sharply divided between haves and have-nots – at 16 percent, Poland's unemployment rate is the EU's highest – that message has drawn both support and outrage.

"The values of Poles are up for grabs," says Dr. Shah. "You couldn't have had a culture war in Poland 20 years ago because there was one culture and no one was fighting about what Poland should be. But now there is a lot of contestation, competition, and disagreement."

But while the clash of secular and religious value systems may be most evident in Poland, there have been flare-ups across Europe in the last couple of years.

In 2004, Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian politician nominated for a seat on the European Commission, drew such criticism for suggesting that homosexuality was a sin that he was forced to remove himself from consideration.

And when the EU's Network of Independent Experts on Human Rights weighed in on Slovakia's treaty with the Vatican exempting doctors from performing abortions, conservatives raised hackles over what they saw as the subordination of individual moral convictions to an increasingly hegemonic secularism.

The matter was so controversial, it brought down Slovakia's coalition government and forced early elections – which brought the far-right into Slovakia's new government.

Are moral issues a domestic affair?

But though such debates can get quite heated, the important thing is that all parties keep a dialogue going, says Lawson, who is part of the EU network of independent experts that weighed in on Slovakia's case. After all, he points out, the clash between differing attitudes and cultures has been a part of Europe for decades.

But if EU member states started to turn their back on the European community and declare moral issues to be an internal affair, that would spell trouble, he says.

"If, for instance, Poland were to introduce the death penalty and say, 'Well, we don't care what Europe feels about this because it's a matter of national sovereignty,' then I would be concerned," says Lawson. "We have a number of treaties Poland accepted years ago ... they allow for different traditions and religious perspectives, but at the same time they are a vehicle for discussion."

Another such vehicle among liberals and conservatives is an increasing consensus that Europe's lack of a strong identity is precisely what makes it vulnerable to radical Islam. Europe's desire to be what some see as overly tolerant and multicultural means that it no longer has a clear set of established values.

In Britain, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and Michael Nazir-Ali, the archbishop of Rochester, have both spoken out against state funding for Muslim schools.

In France, "where there was arguably some attempt by Muslims to chip away at laicité [on the head scarf issue and other similar issues]," says Shah, "there was a strong sense of common cause between traditional Catholics and secular republicans."

And in their book, Ratzinger and Pera also homed in on the issue of Europe's culture falling prey to radical Islam – an issue that's top of mind in Europe on the eve of the fifth anniversary of 9/11.

The continent is faced with potent reminders – such as the foiled British planes plot as well as the arrest on Monday of nine men in Denmark on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack – that homegrown terrorism must yet be weeded out.

But Ratzinger's interest in teaming up with Pera was not so much a sign of finding middle ground, as of finding different ground, a ground on which to defend human dignity says Mr. Weigel, who has also written a book on Ratzinger.

"Morally neutral democracy," he says, "is an impossibility."

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