No sooner had the incoming EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen secured the necessary vote for the top job – she was the only candidate, after all – then she upset the very people who were cheering her on but a few days ago.
To widespread gasps of disapproval, the new president re-named the job title of the EU’s senior migration official as that of “protecting our European way of life”. One Dutch MEP, Sophie in ‘t Veld, who specialises in migration law, decried the move by saying: “The very point about the European way of life is the freedom for individuals to choose their own way of life.”
Today, von der Leyen bowed to pressure and decided that it wasn’t such a great job title for someone charged with preventing immigrants from making their home here. Nonetheless, there remains a valid question about whether there is indeed such a thing as the “European way of life”.
It is not insignificant that in ‘t Veld is an Honorary Associate of the UK’s National Secular Society, which awarded her the Secularist of the Year prize in 2011. For the Dutch MEP, the very point about Europe, and institutions like the EU, is that they exist in a Rawlsian way, not to prioritise one particular way of life over another, but simply to maintain a neutral and level playing field; one in which, as far as possible, very different conceptions of the good and the good life may flourish alongside each other.
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Crucially for this vision, the state, and a quasi-state like the EU, must not take sides. That’s why all talk of “a European way of life” is an anathema, since it implies that the state should take a view as to what constitutes the best way of life. And the fear for people like in ‘t Veld is that this is a sneaky way of referring to Christianity – or, at least, our European Christian inheritance.
The story told by secularists is that Europe is simply about “the freedom of individuals to choose their own way of life”. But what is the basis on which people choose the good life – is it through their own private inclinations and feelings, a kind of individual creation of values ex nihilio? Or does there need to be some pre-existing moral landscape in which such judgments are rooted and by reference to which our moral values make sense?
The godfather of in ‘t Veld’s liberalism is Nietzsche. For him, the solitary individual must be his own god, creating his own values, directed by his own light. The task for authentic human existence is to give birth to yourself. Nothing has a value that you yourself have not given it, and only the weak adopt their “way of life” from others, off-the-shelf. This is the Europe of in ‘t Veld: “the freedom of individuals to choose their own way of life.”
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Another and highly contrasting view of Europe is powerfully expressed by the historian Tom Holland in his new book, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. Here Europe is not, and should not be, like Rawls’s “original position” – it is not a neutral playing field that has no position on what constitutes the good. Such a political conception of Europe would have no memory and no history.
This neutral idea of Europe vainly pretends that we make life choices detached from our surroundings and our past. It imagines that we are born into a featureless landscape, with only our own intuitions and choices as a guide. No, Holland insists, Europeans have a moral inheritance, a world view, and it has patterned our moral choices, and continues to pattern them, even when we think of ourselves as operating without it. Not least of which, it has given us a sense of the basic equality of all human beings, that we are all made in the image of God irrespective of colour or creed.
Indeed, by holding up as worthy of admiration – worship even – a man who ended his days strung up on a Roman instrument of torture, a life thrown away on the rubbish dump, Christianity makes a powerful statement about the intrinsic and supreme value of even the most apparently worthless existence. Holland emphasises how revolutionary this way of thinking was, how contrasting to the brutality of the Romans.
Should this be built into our modern “European way of life” – or is it just another one of those things that must be up for grabs in the free-for-all that liberals perceive as essential to the freedom of human beings?
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Nietzsche, of course, hated Christianity. For him, it was the celebration of the weak. His new world would instead celebrate only the powerful, only those with the wherewithal to push themselves up, only those capable of forging their own identity through their own choice and their own choice alone.
But even Nietzsche would baulk at what this has come to mean. For him, choice was a kind of quasi-spiritual quest, something that required huge resources of self-discipline and imagination. He viewed self-creation as a kind of artistic project, making oneself up as one might make up a great work of art.
What he did not live to see was that, in practice, self-creation and choice would come to be conscripted by the all-powerful market; that choice would come to be little more than code for shopping, the Mall replacing the Temple as the site of public worship. In such a world, “the freedom of individuals to choose their own way of life” often means little more than self-definition through new trainers – our individuality being the most easily manipulated thing about us.
Tom Holland’s thesis is that the European moral imagination has been so schooled by the Christian story that, whether we are religious or not, we would be lost without it. It is not, however, a contribution to the debate about immigration. Christianity, as he tells it, is not a membership organisation for insiders, and certainly not for insiders defined by ethnicity.
It is a way of looking at the world that has saturated our European values. And as such, for Europeans, it is not one choice among others, but the background against which things make moral sense. And without it, we are at the mercy of brutal forces that would define our values in terms of power or commerce. From this perspective, in ‘t Veld is not defending all that makes Europe a force for good in the world. She is undermining it.