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

Newer EU members struggle to promote a more traditional morality.

Europe, it seems, is having a bit of an identity crisis. As leaders from Budapest to Barcelona vie to guide the continent's forward course, the needle on Europe's moral compass is bouncing frenetically between two increasingly polarized camps.

•The European Union last month rebuffed Poland's president over his interest in promoting a return to the death penalty. Tuesday, meanwhile, Polish students rallied against a plan to have stronger religious and patriotic values taught in schools.

•Last winter, Slovakia provoked an EU outcry when it negotiated a draft treaty with the Vatican to give legal protection to doctors who refuse to perform abortions.

•In 2004, the EU was embroiled in a dispute about whether its proposed constitution should include a reference to Christianity as a defining influence on European culture.

Amid the turmoil, however, thinkers from both sides are starting to agree on one point: Restoring Europe's moral underpinnings is essential if it is once again to develop a strong sense of identity.

"What the EU needs is a more robust affirmation of what makes it unique – its identity, its values," says Timothy Shah, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington. "And interestingly, very different people are starting to say the same thing."

Shortly before becoming pope, for example, Joseph Ratzinger teamed up with Marcello Pera, an agnostic and recent president of the Italian senate, to confront Europe's identity crisis in a book titled, "Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam."

"I think what Marcello is trying to do is define a moral vocabulary on which both believers and nonbelievers can agree, a moral vocabulary based on a common understanding of the inherent, unalienable dignity of the human person," says George Weigel, a Catholic theologian and author of "The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God." "And we'll see if that works. I think there ought to be some serious interest."

But Mr. Pera and now–Pope Benedict XVI are operating in an arena where Europe's values gap appears to be widening.

On one side are countries like the Netherlands, which has mandated that "Christ" be spelled with a lowercase "c," and Spain, where birth certificates now provide for same-sex parents to be referred to as "Progenitor A" and "Progenitor B."

At the opposite pole are figures such as Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his twin, Prime Minister Jaroslav Kaczynski. Elected on vows to root out corruption, they are causing a stir across Europe with other aspects of their push for politics based on traditional, religious values, such as opposition to homosexuality.

"It's a good thing to campaign on ... but of course it doesn't go down well with older EU members in Western Europe, as it's a challenge to the liberal revolution that began in the '60s," says Krzysztof Bobinski, director of Unia I Polska, a pro-Europe advocacy and research organization in Warsaw, Poland.

Just last week, Poland's prime minister, on a trip to Brussels, tried to allay concerns of his EU colleagues that his country was homophobic and xenophobic.

Curbing nationalism after World War II

In the wake of World War II, Western Europe sought not only to rein in nationalism – a prime motive for creating a "European Union" – but also began to probe the root causes of discrimination, says Robin Shepherd, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund office in Bratislava, Slovakia.

During this period of discussion and self-criticism, Mr. Shepherd says, an array of social issues were brought to the table, including women's rights, minority rights, gay rights, abortion, and the death penalty. The wrenching debates ultimately led to greater tolerance and more liberal legislation, says Shepherd.

In Eastern Europe, however, the Communist Party's ruthlessness in cracking down on dissent prevented such discussions from taking place.

"It was absolutely inconceivable to have grass-roots interest groups or rights groups, and there was no mechanism to get such issues on the political agenda," says Shepherd. "In many ways, Eastern Europe is four decades behind in these debates."

But that's not to say countries like Poland and Slovakia will arrive at the same destination after a similar period of debate.

"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."

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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