The past year has not gone well for Europe. Its stack of woes include the forced redrawing of borders by Russia, an upsurge of African migrants and right-wing reaction to it, economic stagnation and deflation, higher youth unemployment, a rising distrust of government, and a rush of European Muslims to join Islamic State.
And then on Wednesday came the deadly attack on the offices of a French satirical magazine by armed terrorists yelling Islamic phrases in what appears to be an assault on a central liberty in Europe, freedom of the press.
In a recent speech, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier summed up the current European dilemma: “This is a time when one crisis follows hot on the heels of another and there is hardly a moment to pause and reflect, to take a step back and ask what it is we are actually doing – and why.”
He and other European leaders wonder why a continent that has contributed so much to humanity cannot exercise its ability to solve these latest problems.
The recent president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, says Europe has extraordinary assets at its disposal, such as the world’s largest market and the most successful model of conflict prevention: the integration of 28 nations under an elected supra-state. Europe has only 7 percent of the world’s people yet a quarter of its economic wealth.
“We have an ability to find solutions in tough moments,” Mr. Barroso says, and Europe is “a community of values” that should be proud about what it has given the world and can still give.
One European asset, says Mr. Steinmeier, is the ability of each democracy to question and renew itself. Self-criticism, he says, “is precisely our strength in this world, which is changing at a dramatic pace and where the ability to learn and adapt is increasingly important. And it is precisely for this reason that people in the world are still looking to us in Europe.”
One historian of European civilization, Larry Siedentop, goes even further to identify the original foundation of Europe. The American-born lecturer on political philosophy at Oxford University writes that Europe is based on the idea that each individual has the ability to understand a deeper reality, or God. That ability, he states, both requires and justifies “the equal moral standing of all humans.”
This concept of “equal liberty” was the message of Paul, based on Christ’s teachings, healings, and sacrifice, and slowly took root in Europe since medieval times. In a new book, “Inventing the Individual,” Mr. Siedentop says Paul’s writings help bring about the idea of individual dignity, or a “sphere of conscience and free action.” People are rational and moral agents and, in a spirit of reciprocity, they want to do unto others as they could have them do unto them.
European society, and later the United States, was built on this social and civic order. Secularism, he writes, does not entail being nonreligious but is the civic expression of the value placed by Christians on individual conscience and moral agency.
It is tragic, he writes, that “by identifying secularism with non-belief, with indifference and materialism, it deprives Europe of moral authority, playing into the hands of those who are only too anxious to portray Europe as decadent and without conviction.”
Who portrays Europe that way? Russian President Vladimir Putin, for one, and the Islamic fundamentalists who attack European media or bomb innocent civilians. In a recent speech to Europe, Pope Francis said the developing world regards the Continent with “aloofness, mistrust and even, at times, suspicion.”
To get on top of its many crises, Europe must reinforce its original constitution of moral and civic liberties. With challenges from outside and within, it can unite in renewed “self-understanding,” as Siedentop states, and embrace the value of freedom that shapes a just and peaceful society.