There is more than one narrative about the European Union. There are—among others—that of a benign force bringing peace and prosperity to the war-devastated continent, that of a promoter of unfettered neoliberalism and austerity, and that of a protector of the nation-state en route toward building a European federation. These days much rhetoric about it also embraces its presumed civilizational character.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron has been the most rhetorical and prolific among European leaders exhorting a renewal of the European project. In 2019, he said: “We know that civilizations are disappearing. . . . Europe will disappear with the obliteration of this Western period, and the world will be centered around two main focal points: the United States and China.” For this reason, he went on, “we must rebuild . . . a collective narrative and a collective imagination. That is why I believe very deeply that this . . . must be undertaken as a project of European civilization.”

Macron is not alone in his preoccupations about the solidity of the EU, as public support for it decreases when Brussels does not deliver the best mix of policies. In some ways his civilizational worldview is now reflected at the EU institutional level. For example, today the portfolio of the European commissioner in charge, among other things, of migration and asylum, is titled “Promoting our European Way of Life.” The English choice of words may be more humble than the French civilisation, but it refers to a similar universe of ideas that there is something specifically European that underpins the European Union.

Rosa Balfour
Rosa Balfour is director of Carnegie Europe. Her fields of expertise include European politics, institutions, and foreign and security policy.
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In policy circles, the phrases “European sovereignty” and “strategic autonomy” are on the lips of decisionmakers, politicians, and observers across Europe. This language is connected with the rhetoric on the EU’s identity: European sovereignty is the political embodiment of the “European civilization”; strategic autonomy is the policy outcome. While not engaging in civilizational debates, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell recognizes that “We live in a permanent ‘battle of narratives’ about the issues that determine our future.”

These brandings reflect political efforts to shore up a European identity that would give solidity to the EU at times of skepticism about the integration project. This has sparked a debate about what it really means to be pro-European—which really means pro-EU, as the two terms tend to be used interchangeably. Hans Kundnani recently criticized pro-Europeans for “a Eurocentric tendency to mistake Europe for the world” and highlighted the risk of European-ness becoming equated with whiteness. The ensuing discussion on the nature of European identity showed just how diverse the understandings of it can be.

The Perils of Civilizational Politics

Using or appealing to a European identity to shore up support for the EU does not capture the fundamental issue at stake. The various narratives about the EU reflect different political and ideological projects about its role as a polity and as an international actor. It is a construct that evolves through the content that its leaders and populations confer to it. The narratives about the EU reflect different political views, not what European-ness is or may be. Support for the EU will not depend solely on its identity but on the political choices pursued, such as building a social or a market-based union, or supporting internationalist or Europe-first policies. The days of the “permissive consensus” when political leaders would make decisions in Brussels without much public scrutiny are long gone. The EU has become an arena for political confrontation and even polarization.

Pursuing a “European civilization” would be a mistake for political, geopolitical, ethical, and historical reasons. The EU is bound to fail if it embraces civilizational justifications for European integration, potentially causing the fragmentation of its membership—which, after Britain’s departure, would have a devastating impact—and undermining its global clout and soft power.

Building a political construct for the EU along the lines of a European “national” self-determination is ahistorical. It does not reflect the civic essence of the history of European integration, which is tied more to peace and governance than to identity building. It does not accommodate the inclusion of multiculturalism, the legacy of imperialism, and the reality of mobility across the continent and immigration from the rest of the world. As some activists and academics timidly embark on uncovering the untold stories of migration and colonialism, embracing a civilizational model of European integration would undercut this long-awaited reckoning with Europe’s past.

Civilizational Rhetoric and Geopolitics

Identity politics is not new to the debate on European integration. There were unsuccessful attempts to insert Europe’s presumed Judeo-Christian origins in the draft constitution produced by the Convention on the Future of the European Union in 2002–2003. Every Islamist-related terrorist attack raises contentious questions of identity and citizenship that challenge Europe’s multi-religiosity. And many EU leaders have resorted to identity politics as a response in kind to the surge of the populist far right that panders to nationalism to depict the EU as the “enemy” and smear its policies.

The regimes in Russia and China confront the EU through the realm of ideas, largely with methods of sabotage and sowing division through disinformation. But both also use a civilizational discourse to propose their views of the world and justify their authoritarianism. China has long been a proponent of “Asian values” to assert cultural relativism when it comes to pushing back on rhetoric about universal values such as human rights, as well as of its developmental model as the best way to exit poverty. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic, it is charting the rise of its model at the expense of the West. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine attacks liberalism and decadent moral disorder in the West as opposed to the patriarchal, family-oriented, and socially conservative Russia. According to President Vladimir Putin, “the liberal idea has become obsolete.” Instead, “all of us live in a world based on biblical values . . . traditional values are more stable and more important for millions of people than this liberal idea.”

Seeking identity in religious values has been attractive also in the European Union. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s famous 2014 speech announcing the foundation of an “illiberal nation state” in Hungary identified the moral failures of liberal democracy (“corruption, sex and violence”) and Christian values as the justification for his rule. “We Europeans are Christians. All this is ours, and this is how we live.”

In stating that “the project of European civilization cannot be spearheaded by Catholic Hungary or by Orthodox Russia, and yet we have left it to these two leaders,” Macron showed he has the intuition that these visions are appealing. He juxtaposes one rooted in the Renaissance and another in the Enlightenment. Yet, by doing so, he plays into civilizational games, can be accused of “orientalism,” and risks fueling a “clash of civilizations,” as Zarqa Parvez writes for the Middle East Monitor. This type of rhetoric alienates ethnic and religious minorities in Europe and tends to spark vicious circles of tit for tat in international politics. The confrontation between Macron and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan following the brutal assassination of a French schoolteacher by a radicalized Muslim youth was just the latest of many episodes of such clashes.

The EU finds itself not simply in a defensive position but also exposed to its own ethical and historical contradictions, at a time when rising geopolitical tensions consist of wars of words as much as of traditional confrontation. It is legitimate to promote the achievements of European integration, but it can also be self-congratulatory, and ahistorical traps should be avoided.

Double Standards and the EU’s Ethics in International Politics

The EU has constitutionalized the values of democracy and human rights like no other actor—and in some respects it has “Europeanized” them; for instance, by including their promotion in its external action. This raises the profile of human rights and democracy in the world, creates expectations for action, and supports the communities promoting these rights around the world. European publics expect the foreign policies of their governments not just to serve their interests but also to reflect their promises regarding these values. EU leaders across the board call them “European values” and insist there is no question of “values versus interests.”

Of course, as is to be expected, the EU mostly falls short of following through. The mismatch between words and deeds could not be sharper than in its dealings with big powers. The culprits trumping the “European values” are the primacy of stability, a mix of business and energy interests, the need for dialogue with other countries on security matters, and the legacy of historical relations. This is also usually driven by the presence of divergent and often competing views within the EU that causes much confusion as to what its position actually is.

This is compounded by the fact that several EU member states have been departing from these principles at home, with democracy eroding across the continent during the past decade—most notably in Hungary and Poland, which can no longer be called democracies.

To Whom Do the Values Belong?

Double standards have thus tarnished the EU’s reputation. What is often overlooked is that the EU has constitutionalized universal values about human rights and personal freedoms while it uses the rhetoric that they are European. Macron’s rhetoric claims ownership of “the profound spirit of French humanism, which we invented and upheld, and which we must reinvent today.” This appropriation is, in itself, Eurocentric and is open to accusations of historical ignorance. In fact, it forgets that the first revolution guided by the ideas of the Enlightenment was the American one against the British Empire. Identifying the Enlightenment as the key source of European identity also omits the influence of other cultures in Europe—Arab, Christian, Jewish, and more—and the legacy of ancient Greece for concepts of democracy and freedom. European states strengthened their democracies through the EU, but these are ideas that are aspired to by many around the world, not a European brand.

Claims to universalism that are foundations of the Enlightenment have also been interpreted as inherently “racist.” Yet, the Enlightenment did provide some philosophical framing for the development of the universal principles that underpin international law today. And the method pursued by the philosophes was in dialectical opposition to images of “the other” that Europeans were encountering in the exploration of unknown geographies and the conquest and exploitation of lands, peoples, and trade routes. The time was one of great discovery also in the field of scientific experimentation and of the study of antiquity—the “other” placed in the past. Indeed, the eighteenth century saw the birth of history and of social sciences.1 Ultimately, Diderot, Rousseau, and Montesquieu created the stereotype of the sauvage as a device not only to study the “science of man” (now we would say humankind), but also to critique their own societies, laying the foundations for modern Europe.

Historically, it cannot be denied that the political economy that allowed first Europe and then the West to dominate the rest of the world through colonization and empire was sustained by the primacy of such ideas. But they also inspired revolution, self-determination, the birth of democracy in Europe and the Americas, and self-critique. In 1791, in parallel to the French Revolution and after the American Revolution, Toussaint L’Ouverture led an insurrection of slaves in the French colony of Saint Domingue that became a revolution against colonialism and led to the proclamation of an independent Haiti in 1804—the second republic of the Western Hemisphere.2 This shows that the ideas originating in the Enlightenment can be appropriated by non-Europeans and adapted to different cultural context. There is no copyright on ideas, and self-emancipation should not be seen as a Western brand.

Today, the emancipatory dimension of these ideas still has traction worldwide, enmeshed in local cultures. Even if democracy has been retreating across the world for more than a decade now, the demand of different peoples to freely express their dignity and opposition to authoritarianism has not. As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has been tracking since 2017, popular protests have surged around the world. This has continued despite the pandemic, notably in Belarus, Hong Kong, India, Myanmar, and Russia.


The historiography of European integration by and large ignores that it advanced together with the decolonization of European empires, as if they were separate experiences. Timothy Snyder is a rare voice arguing that

the EU is the soft landing after empire. It has allowed Europeans to cheat fate. Think of it: Societies that fought two World Wars and lost far-flung empires have the world’s highest standard of living. Usually the collapse of empire means the collapse of civilization. Europe managed to do the opposite: to preserve the reality and burnish the image of its civilization despite the collapse of its empires.

The Black Lives Matter movements across the United States and Europe are challenging European versions of history. Belgium’s and France’s first steps in admitting to the atrocities committed in their colonies fall short of formal apologies and reparations. Across Europe, students are demanding non-Eurocentric curricula of studies and the inclusion of history and literature of the colonized lands; the #RhodesMustFall movement is challenging symbols of memory and identity; “decolonization” is pushing for novel interpretations of history. In Washington, the National Museum of African American History and Culture offers calculations of the profits Europe and the United States made through slavery. Similar efforts should be made to uncover more of Europe’s entanglement with its empires.

For the European Union, seeking to brand itself as a unique civilization risks reiterating the “language of domination and the assertion of neo-colonial power,” Parvez notes, does not reflect Europe’s own multicultural population, and does not serve the goal of qualifying and strengthening the soft power of the EU to make it attractive to the rest of the world. It ignores the degree to which European wealth was generated through empire and immigration. And it disconnects the relationship between the dissolution of empire and integration in Europe.

Rather than being proprietorial about “values” that assert a unique European civilization, narratives about the European Union should acknowledge that the openness of such values has given it strength. However imperfect the continent’s democracies are, they can provide a political environment that allows for multiple identities and freedoms. And democracy is the best framework for self-critique and reform. The “values” adopted by European democracies are emancipatory and open to all. For this reason, a critique of Europe’s colonial history and a reckoning with and celebration of its multiethnic and multireligious identity is much needed.



1 Anthony Pagden, European Encounters with the New World, From the Renaissance to Romanticism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993).

2 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991)