Whose story?

May 13, 2023

Whose is the story of the origins of Europe? …of the ‘European’ values of freedom and peace? …or of the process of European integration? 

At the first Swedish Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast  in Stockholm last week, parliamentarians heard an alternative to the popular secular narrative on the origins of Europe which marginalises God. Then at the State of Europe Forum over the next two days, participants heard a further challenge to the conventional view that values of peace, freedom and human rights were a fruit of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century – once the ‘superstitions of religion could be sidelined by reason’.

Schuman Centre senior researcher Evert Van de Poll’s talk to the politicians followed on from my own reflections on how Europe had become a ‘house of squatters’, indwelt by people unaware of who had laid the foundations of the European house and who had paid the price for the liberties we enjoy today. Although the ancient Greeks had used the name ‘Europe’, argued Evert, for them it was a small region overlapping part of today’s Greece and the southern Balkans. To their chauvinistic Greek minds, the idea of including the barbarians to the north into ‘Europe’ would have been outrageous. For the Romans too, only the concept of ‘we Romans’ and ‘our Graeco-Roman civilisation’ counted – never ‘we Europeans’. 

The story developed as Christian forces resisted the advance of Muslim armies in the eighth century, both in the west and the east. In his chronicle of the Battle of Poitiers, Isidore of Beja described the Franks and their allies as ‘Europeans’, using a collective name for a number of Christian peoples.

Father of Europe

The name ‘European’ meant being part of the Christianised world, a group of peoples sharing the same Christian faith. ‘Europe’ meant a sense of belonging to a whole that was bigger than one’s own nation. As more ‘barbarian’ peoples embraced the Christian faith, so Europe began to grow: including Goths, Slavs, Vikings and Balts. Europe was Christendom was Europe. A new Christian empire emerged, self-styled as the Holy Roman Empire and called ‘Europe’ in ecclesiastical documents. Charlemagne, crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 was known as Pater Europae, Father of Europe.

The story of Europe cannot be truthfully told without the story of Jesus at the centre. Every European politician should hear the story – as Evert tells it – of the emergence of the idea of Europe as we understand it today.

The same is true with the story of how freedom, peace and human rights emerged as European values. Enlightenment thinkers championing the right of every human being to certain civil rights and individual freedoms (such as freedom of expression and freedom of belief) drew, often unconsciously, on a long biblical tradition. This included the Exodus and many passages about freedom; also the notion of natural law (i.e. the moral law written in each human heart and mind); as well as the revelation that each human is created in the image of God. Principles of equality, dignity, sanctity of life, brotherhood and solidarity are derived from this understanding of humanity. Which in turn became the foundations for human rights, propogated by early church fathers like Tertullian, and radical Protestants like Thomas Helwys, Richard Overton (the ‘father of human rights’) and Roger Williams, long before the Enlightenment thinkers repackaged these ideas. 


The European integration process was launched by the Schuman Declaration of May 9, 1950. This is the central story we tell each year at the State of Europe Forum around that date. Last Friday evening in the historic Santa Clara Church in downtown Stockholm, we retold this story about how Jesus’ instruction to ‘love one’s neighbour’ compelled Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister, to reach out in forgiveness and reconciliation to his German neighbours. That was how the European integration process began. Schuman was adamant that the European project could not just be an economic and technological process. It needed a soul, he insisted. 

But, as I explained to the politicians at the prayer breakfast, we could hardly expect their competence to include finding a soul for Europe. It should be a task for the faith communities. Sadly, it’s a challenge our faith communities have too often neglected. 

That task begins with us realising that these stories are our stories to tell. For all politics begins with our understanding of God, which determines our understanding of human identity, of society and how we should then live. 

P.S. You can follow the sessions of the State of Europe Forum here (Friday) and here (Saturday)

Also, last Tuesday’s Schuman Talk (May 9) can be followed here. Poor wifi connections with the Czech Republic where Russian historian Andrej Zubov now lives limited our original intention to interview him for an hour to a mere five minute segment. So, in addition, you can now hear Evert Van de Poll’s talk at the forum about the moments of grace in recent European history, and a brief talk from Jan Figel’, the former EU envoy for religious freedom on the roots of freedom and peace. 

Till next week,

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