It was seventy years ago that the Schuman Declaration launched European integration, widely regarded as the most successful process in European history. At the same time, the story of integration was accompanied by challenges, dilemmas, and crises, which invariably necessitated reform. The basic challenges remain with us today. Examples include the conflict between sovereigntists and federalists, imbalances between the economic, political, and cultural dimensions of integration, and the deepening divide between geographical regions (North– South, East–West). The first dilemma could be solved by reinterpreting the notions of nation and federalism, ‘a Europe of nations above the states’ as I suggested twenty-five years ago. On the second count, balance should be restored among the economic, political, and cultural dimensions of integration, particularly by bolstering the cultural dimension. This task would require, first and foremost, the recognition of collective identities, the national and European identities, and the strengthening of the shared elements of European identity, which sprouted from the Christian roots of what Robert Schuman called espace de civilisation.

Understandably, the three writings quoted in this essay1 confine their inquiry to a period of barely twenty-five years. However, the fundamental issues and dilemmas were essentially the same as, or at least very similar to, those we face today. Needless to say, the world is changing constantly and rapidly, and this holds for European integration as well. Changes tend to gather speed in extraordinary situations, such as the current pandemic. When this happens, we find ourselves parroting the wise but hardly original observation that the world is never going to be the same. This is true given that the world is never exactly like it was even a day before. It is also true that extraordinary events and shocks not only accelerate change but redirect the course of certain processes, just as they may slow down other accelerating ones or even halt them altogether. For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic is going to put the brakes on globalization, particularly its economic aspect. Indeed, this deceleration began years ago in the international trade of goods and investment, mainly due to advances in technology and considerations of security policy, and is merely aided by the pandemic, which further stimulates the processes of fragmentation, regionalization, and localization already under way. At the same time, the quality progress in digitalization triggered by the pandemic provides impetus to new dimensions of global relations. From the geopolitical and security policy point of view, the strategic rivalry between the United States and China, which goes back several years, and the attendant mutual distrust and confrontation, are escalating at a higher rate instead of slowing down. The pandemic and the crisis unleashed by it may intensify not only individual but also collective neuroses, making the world less safe and more dangerous.

Thus the world is being transformed by processes of varying speed and direction. It is these changes we are most sensitive to and therefore most likely to pay attention to. It is also a part of human nature to perceive change in a predominantly negative light, despite the fact that, on the evidence of the most important indices, the world has become a better place to live in over the course of the past two thousand years, and even for the past seventy.2 This partly explains why phenomena of continuity and permanence normally generate less interest, and why it is the changes that receive more attention, provoking thoughts, conclusions, and proposals for more change on an even larger scale, possibly—and alarmingly—even the elaboration of overarching theories and ideologies. The essence of the conservative world-view lies precisely in its focus and ability to grasp unchanging elements, to identify values it deems worthy of conservation, even when the general changes seem to point in the opposite direction, as the case may be. The progressivist wants to accelerate change, saying that ‘it is a historical necessity’, whereas the conservative seeks to slow it down, arguing that change in itself is not necessarily for our good, no matter how inevitable it may be, and that we cannot preserve values unless we recognize and accept the elements of permanence.

Now, permanence has been a part of universal history, but also of the history of Europe and the history of European integration within it. It is there not only in fundamental values and the most impressive, unique achievements throughout history, but also in the dilemmas, challenges, and recurring and often accumulating crises. These demand new approaches and revised attitudes—in short, reform. It is for a reason that ‘crisis’ and ‘reform’ are the words that crop up most frequently in the history of integration. But values have permanence, just as our dilemmas do, even if they reappear in various specific forms to trigger crisis. As I suggested fifteen years ago in connection with the vote against the constitution treaty,3 European integration received a major boost following several crises, including the one caused by the National Assembly of France on 30 August 1954, when it postponed sine die the ratification of the European Defence Community.

One of the most important dilemmas, oft-cited and widely debated from the outset, is whether European unity should be based on the cooperation and alliance of independent, sovereign nation states or on a federal superstructure existing over and above them, which should be built in a step-by-step process. Even though the debate is frequently reduced to the conflict between sovereigntists and federalists, the issue is far more complex than such a simplistic dichotomy. The question is hardly made easier to answer by the fact that these notions themselves have not been defined unambiguously—nor could they be, so long as the debate remains at the forefront of the political arena. We Hungarians instantly come up against the interpretation of the concept of ‘nation’, because our concept of the nation is as a culture, and therefore we do not equate it with the state.4 As for sovereignty, it is basically a category of international law which pertains to the state and the state alone, and as such cannot apply to the cultural nation. From the strictly linguistic point of view, the word itself—nation or nemzet—is not an issue, but for us it has a different ring to it. This is the recognition that led me, twenty-five years ago, to the idea of ‘a Europe of nations above the states’,5 which boils down to the need for European integration to sustain and even reinforce national identities as something without which a diverse but unified Europe would be inconceivable. At the same time, the power of omnipotent, homogeneous nation states must be scaled back in a process toward a stronger, federal structure, whose purpose is to fortify national communities rather than to weaken them. The question is, of course—and this is the second point of the conceptual controversy—what exactly we mean by federation and federalism. Is it a quasi-state of uniform structure controlled and supervised from above, a sort of empire which relies on the willingness of its nation states to waive their sovereignty or assign it to that central authority? Or is it a grassroots association of free communities, first and foremost of nations as historically evolved, linguistic and spiritual communities, free to preserve and even intensify their identities as such? We could go a long way by returning to the original theological and philosophical roots of federalism and free communities, the original Christian communities, and Althusius, the forefather of the federalist idea.6 It is these roots that the federalist dream of European integration ought to have originated from and ought to originate from today. Alas, this is not what happened. These days, a significant part of the European public views the very notion of federalism with suspicion because it equates it with imperial practices, the superstate ‘federalism’ executed from above of which the reality of integration, coupled with elements of ideology, has regrettably served and continues to serve abundant examples.

The recognition of the primary, historically formed linguistic, cultural, and spiritual collective identity, that is national identity, and the willingness to draw the political and institutional conclusions have been prerequisites for successful European integration from its inception. This is particularly true today, as the transformation of the economic and geopolitical world order is gathering speed and European (more generally, Western) civilization is losing ground in terms of demography, politics, and the global economy, amid recurring and cumulative crises accompanying the project of European integration. Needless to say, these tendencies will be amplified rather than de-escalated in the years ahead, the challenges and crises of which even the most sagacious forecasters are unable to predict.

The other vital condition would be the correct interpretation of federalism, also built on its antecedents in history and the history of ideas, the recognition of the existence and cohesion of free communities building bottom-up, and based on this the recognition and realization of their cultural, economic, and political rights, in one word, their autonomy. Unless they are free and capable of both avowing and enforcing their distinct identities, no communities can form alliances, join their forces in any political or institutional structure, form broader communities, or build a circle of collective identity wider than their own, such as the also historically rooted European identity, the ‘civilizational space’ or ‘spiritual and cultural community’7 envisioned by Schuman, on which they can establish solid economic and political integration.

Therefore these two preconditions must be linked, and the European integration must be built on the free federation of cultural national communities. Of course, none of this implies that sovereignty as such, and the sovereign state in particular in the sense of international law (a state organized on a territorial basis, with internationally recognized borders) should disappear. Basic government functions stem from sovereignty and are linked to specific territories. In the case of aggression or other external threat it is primarily the state that must protect its citizens, and the situation is similar in the case of a threat posed by a pandemic. If nothing else, this presupposes borders. Contagion knows no boundaries. In the Middle Ages, settlements were protected by walls to protect residents against potential alien carriers of the plague. At worst, the city gates had to be bolted shut, with all the adverse consequences such isolation entailed. The sovereign state can never waive certain vital functions; if it did, it would lose its essence, and existence. (There are quite a few regrettable examples for this in Hungarian history, but we have never lost and will never lose our sense of ourselves as a nation, come what may, which is far more important to us even than our state.) At this point it is worth stating for the record that, in the European Union, the member states do not waive their sovereignty wholly or in part. What they do is transfer the exercise of some of the rights that come with that sovereignty to the shared institutions of the Union, which means that they continue to exercise these rights jointly.

A sovereign state that recognizes the identity of its linguistic, cultural, and spiritual communities offers a stronger and more secure framework, just as an integrated European system of institutions will if it builds on national communities and respects the sovereignty and constitutional identity of each.

It is then by combining the notion of the nation as culture with a federalism built from down up that we should arrive at the ‘community of communities’, in other words, the ‘Europe of nations above the states’ I envisioned twenty-five years ago. This would be instrumental in resolving the contradiction between the ‘Europe of nations’ and the ‘Europe above the nations’, ultimately in mediating a reconciliation between sovereigntists and federalists—not that this seems likely any time soon.

Admittedly, the chances for building such a Europe by combining the two concepts outlined above are rather slim at present, as neither the sovereigntist nor the federalist camp support  the  idea.  The  sovereigntists  worry  about the fate of the state possessing theoretically and legally unrestricted (but in practice obviously limited) sovereignty. The idea seems particularly risky to those who tend to identify state sovereignty with a homogeneous nation state, because for them the sheer existence of any community, linguistic, cultural, or national, which cannot be pinned down to a single state, God forbid the recognition of its cultural, economic, and political rights as embodied in any form of autonomy, would be tantamount to an attempt at undermining the unified nation state. What they fail to realize is that the acknowledgment of collective identities below the level of the state and the adoption of community rights based on that acknowledgment, along with the attendant recognition of some form of territorial or cultural autonomy, would not only not weaken but would positively reinforce the unity and sovereignty of their state. Regrettably, in certain influential countries the claims of autonomy have been superseded by secession efforts aimed at forming an independent state which, in reality, jeopardize the unity of the state in question, and by doing so they provide ammunition for the arguments voiced by the detractors of autonomy. Having said that, it is important to see that each country has its own unique history, geography, demography, ethnic composition, and culture, and in the majority of cases autonomy presents a viable solution for the coexistence of various national communities under a single sovereign state.

Nor has integration based on the twin notion of the cultural nation and a grassroots federalism found favour with the federalist proponents of a superstate building its structures from high on down. They invariably seek to broaden powers above and beyond the nation states, whether by means of treaties, with the kind of stealthy expansion of powers preferred by EU institutions (particularly but not exclusively the Commission and the Parliament), or by amending one of the fundamental charters. This is essentially about delegating and dividing discretionary powers between member states and union-wide institutions, about the definition of levels of decision-making—no doubt the single most crucial issue of the institutional system. As such, it must clearly be approached with caution. What is called for is flexibility, selectivity, the differentiated treatment of different fields instead of sweeping doctrines and political dogma (e.g. the ‘ever closer Union’). Furthermore, in certain areas, particularly those linked to the outward manifestations of sovereignty (external and internal security, foreign policy, and defence), we need to promote joint action, while in other sectors it would make sense to strive for an equilibrium among the various decision making levels (Union, state, and below the state).

Yet the situation is not entirely hopeless. There have been certain advances in regionalism, and the principle of subsidiarity—initially taken formally and not very seriously—is beginning to be filled with real meaning. Once again, all it would take is a return to Schuman’s idea about spiritual and cultural communities, to the very roots of Christianity and democracy.8 Indeed, these are the two most essential, mutually complementary components of subsidiarity, which would be inconceivable without a stratified system of Christian communities and the free and democratic operation of these communities. Should not this be the federalism of democratic, free communities, one that would found a civilizational space on Christianity and watch over its integrity? None of this is even close to thwarting the expansion of Union-level discretionary powers or the exercise of these powers via the institutions of the Union, provided that these acts follow the order and principles set forth in the fundamental treaties and respect the mandate for a non-discriminatory implementation of the rule of law, both in terms of the relationship between international norms and EU law, and between EU law and the member states. Once this structure is in place, we must integrate within it the linguistic, cultural, and spiritual communities existing within or beyond individual member states, which very communities constitute the essence of the European civilizational space and Europe’s diversity.

In my opinion, a step in the right direction would be to recognize national regions and enshrine that recognition in a legal form.9 The Commission’s initial reluctance to embrace this idea—a refusal which had to be overruled in court—is in and of itself symptomatic of the aversion nurtured by ‘the centre’ (or ‘Brussels’, to quote a less felicitous metonymy) toward ‘civilizational’ factors such as history, language, spirituality, and culture, which not only amounts to the denial of Schuman’s legacy but downright forms a major obstacle along the path of bringing the project of European integration to full maturity.

This brings us to the second chief dilemma of European integration, which is the disequilibrium that characterizes the various  dimensions  of  integration. The foremost and at once most successful dimension is undoubtedly that of the economy, including the common duty and trade policy, the common and then unified market, a capable competition policy, an almost excessively vital agricultural policy, and the common currency, which has nevertheless raised and continues to raise serious issues owing to the absence of proper preparedness and grounding in economic and fiscal policy. The overall picture, then, is one of an economic integration that must be regarded as one of the greatest triumphs in the history of Europe.

The efforts to bring about political unity lag far behind the performance of economic integration, as most evidently shown by the mediocre achievements of a common foreign and security policy, and of common defence. This remains the case despite the fact that the point of the entire enterprise, and of course Schuman’s original vision, was to forge a political unity. The original motivation, inception, and goal were all essentially political in nature (finalité politique), with economic integration serving merely as a means to attain that end. True enough, it was an indispensable tool, if only because political ambitions could not be clearly distinguished from economic tools when the European Coal and Steel Community was created in 1952. The functional and incremental nature of the Monnet method developed at the time (and expanded later on) proved to be ideally suited for rolling out economic integration step by step, although it came up short when it came to strengthening the political dimension.10

Even more crucial than the imbalance between the economic and political dimensions has been the relegation to the background of the third and most important dimension, that of culture, the espace de civilisation or communauté culturelle et spirituelle as conceived by Schuman, when this was supposed to be the engine, heart, and soul of the whole project to begin with. It is for a reason we talk at length—but actually do much less—about the soul of Europe. This soul, l’âme de l’Europe, presupposes the recognition of the identity of communities, and presupposes it decisively and generally. There can be no individual identity without a community identity to fall back on, just as a collective identity is inconceivable without the specifically chosen and avowed identity of individuals within that community. As I wrote three years ago,11 it is this dimension of civilization and culture, European identity in this sense of the word, that must be the focus of our endeavours. We cannot reach back to the original goals of integration unless we rediscover the roots of our very being and true nature, the way we really are to ourselves. It is all right for each to prioritize different substantive elements of this identity. We understand the person who would rather look upon a Greek Orthodox church than marvel at the Notre Dame any day, and are happy to concede the legacy of antiquity as an indispensable constituent of the European identity, without which Europe would not be what it is today. We respect and acknowledge the Enlightenment and its values, including liberty, equality, and fraternity, because without them Europe would not be as we know it. But nor could we talk about a Europe without taking into account its Judeo-Christian heritage. Europe was founded on la civilisation chrétienne, to quote Schuman again. All these values together provided and shaped European identity, which could not exist without any element of this cultural and intellectual heritage. Beside the Acropolis and Golgotha, the Capitolium played a major role as the repository of Roman law, without which the law of our modern times could not have become the all-important tool that it was of creating and running the EU’s institutions, of the progress of integration (legal norms and decisions made especially vital contributions to the unfolding of the economic dimension of that progress). That aside, the Capitolium was and remains a central symbol of European culture and identity.

As we have seen, European identity has several (at least three) indispensable substantive components. Taken together, they mean a diversity which perhaps lends the single greatest advantage to the European civilizational space over other cultures. Part of this advantage lies in our ability to place the emphasis on any one of these elements, ‘hills’ for varying reasons of history and culture, or under the influence of political or economic interests. What constitutes a potential problem is if we fail to respect the values held in high regard by others, if we fail to realize that these are important not only for those who believe in them but also as elements of European culture on the whole, and therefore as constituent parts of our European identity which cannot be circumvented. And we shall be in even greater trouble if we forget Schuman’s message about the civilisation chrétienne, precisely during this most important, perhaps most critical and fateful phase of European integration.

The differences of opinion regarding what constitutes the essence of European identity will not pose a meaningful challenge to integration until they provoke, maintain, and escalate intractable conflicts among the actors and participants of integration, particularly the member states. This is as good a point as any to address the third great quandary of integration, which has to do with the lines of division existing within Europe, stemming from a variety of conflicts and thus carrying different meanings and appearing in different forms.

Nowadays, we mostly dwell on the dividedness between East and West, even though several other trenches have been appearing in Europe for the past seventy years. Admittedly, the process started with the reconciliation between France and Germany, without which we would have no European integration to speak about, and which was the work of several consecutive events of history and outstanding statesmen on either side. True enough, the two countries could and did have conflicts of interest in certain issues regarding the overall process of integration. Suffice it to recall the six months of chaise vide, or the calamities around Britain’s admission, or the discrepancies of opinion (later resolved but resurfacing in altered forms) around the introduction of the euro or the Eastern enlargement. Nor can there be any doubt that the concord and cooperation between these two leading countries, or the absence of the same, continues to exert decisive influence on the life of the EU and thus on the shape the integration will take at any given moment. Yet no remembrance of history can conceal the fact that, beyond the relations between France and Germany, the fate of integration is also at the mercy of several other economic and political factors and interests that have to do with the relations among the other member states.

Without going into details, the line of division between North and South was largely formed along the line of economic and financial interests, which continue to define current debates in the Union. Incidentally, approaches to economic philosophy in Europe and the economic models based on them have never been cut from the same cloth. For instance, the recently rekindled controversy about the euro bonds cannot be divorced from these various historically determined models, views, and interests. At the same time, the outcome of such disputes today has the potential to make or break the very future of integration, not just for the euro region but for the Union across the board.

The conflicts between East and West are fundamentally different in nature. Here, too, there is no shortage of disputes about economic issues on the surface (notably funds), but the real debate goes far deeper, into realms of cultural heritage, identity, insufficient familiarity and knowledge, sensitivity, mutual distrust and lack of understanding, political and moral superciliousness, complexes of inferiority and superiority, and many other things, none of which is going to be easy to stomach, process, and resolve.

Seventy years ago the whole project took off in a more positive light, in spite of far more adverse circumstances. Let me once again quote Schuman, who predicted that the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe, then deprived of their freedom by a totalitarian system, would join a common Europe as soon as they had an opportunity to do so.12 And let me invoke the preeminent historic proponent of a Europe of nations. After the Marxist–Leninist French students foiled his talk at the Sorbonne, President de Gaulle addressed an audience at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, conveying the veiled but firm message that foreign occupation and totalitarianism would end one day.13

Then in 1989, we saw the annus mirabilis, the renewal of Central and Eastern Europe, and indeed of Europe and the world itself. The unification of Germany took place. This may seem merely a bon mot but it is a hard fact that Hungarian public opinion and politics stood up for the cause of German unification more unanimously than Germany itself (not to mention France and the United Kingdom). Hungarians and others in Central Europe not only sensed that Germany’s dividedness was untenable politically and morally, but also knew full well that a unified Europe would be impossible if the reunification of Germany did not take place.

So German unity was accomplished in October 1990, followed by the unification of Europe a decade and a half later. To what extent this unification will turn into reality, to permeate Europe in all of its economic, political, and cultural dimensions, whether it will find a home in the hearts of people East and West—it is all up to us Europeans, whether we hail from the Eastern or Western reaches of this continent.

From these Eastern fringes, it seems to us—subjectively and in tune with our traditional Central European sensibilities—that the other side would perhaps be well-advised to engage in less virtue signalling, finger pointing, blame game and, yes, less patronizing. Explaining these attitudes in detail would take a separate study, but that had better wait until the current emergency and the restlessness entailed by it have passed.

The three dilemmas I have spoken about, namely the conflict between sovereigntists and federalists, the equilibrium deficit among the economic, political, and cultural dimensions of integration, and the conflicts and division between member states (among other challenges) have followed us not just for the past seven decades but seem likely to stay around. The big question is how the current extraordinary circumstances, notably the psychological, economic, and social shock generated by the pandemic, are going to impact the processes of change in the world in general, slowing them down or accelerating them as the case may be, and to what extent they are going to alter the course of these processes. In particular, a lot will depend on how the pandemic influences the present and future of European integration. Will the impending realities bear out the prophets of gloom who point—largely for good reason—to a series of developments adverse to integration? Or is it going to be demonstrated once again that the creation of European unity is a more profound and more powerful process than it seems on its face? In any event, this grand enterprise has not yet been halted by various crises to date; on the contrary, it seems to thrive on them. The answer to this big question will first and foremost hinge on our ability to hit upon or rediscover the quintessence of community and European identity in its major constitutive elements, to realize the overriding importance of civilizational and cultural foundations, if only because they have the power to define the two cardinal factors of the global competition: demography and technological progress. It ultimately boils down to whether we can draw from the crisis a fresh energy, verve, and resolve that will enable us to reiterate the process of integration in genuine and meaningful ways.

Some things change; others do not. It was not seventy but two hundred and twenty-one years ago when Novalis lamented, ‘Once there were fine, resplendent times when Europe was a Christian land, when one Christendom occupied this humanly constituted continent’.14

Translated by Péter Balikó Lengyel

1 János Martonyi, ‘A magyar nemzet sorsa és az európai fejlődés’ ([The Destiny of the Hungarian Nation and European Progress), edited version of the talk given at the Conference on National Security hosted by the Fourth World Congress of Hungarians (Budapest: Magyarok Világszövetsége, 1996); ‘Hogyan tovább, Európa?’ (EU, Quo Vadis?), Heti Válasz, 5/2 (2005); ‘Változatok az európai integráció jövőjére’ (Variations on the Future of European Integration), edited version of the lecture delivered at the conference hosted by SZTE ÁJTK NRTI, Szeged, 23 September 2017.

2 Hans Rosling, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World—And Why Things Are Better Than You Think (London: Sceptre, 2018).

3 Martonyi, ‘Hogyan tovább, Európa?’, 1 (fn. 1).

4 László Sólyom, ‘A kulturális nemzet fogalmáról és elismertetéséről’ (On the Notion and Recognition of the Concept of the State as Culture), Documenta, Közélet (Budapest: HVG–ORAC, 2019), 340.

5 Martonyi, ‘A magyar nemzet sorsa’, 1 (fn. 1).

6  Thomas Hueglin, ‘Federalism at the Crossroads: Old Meanings, New Significance’, Canadian Journal of Political Science (June 2003), 275–294.

7 Georges-Henri Soutou, ‘La Déclaration Schuman’, 5 May 2020, schuman/.

8 Soutou, ‘La Déclaration Schuman’, 3 (fn. 5).

9  European Citizens’ Initiative: Cohesion Policy for the Equality of the Regions and Sustainability of the Regional Cultures, European Commission, Brussels (30 April 2019),

10  Federico Ottavio Reho, For a New Europeanism, Future of Europe (Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, 2017),

11 Martonyi, ‘Változatok az európai integráció jövőjére’, fn. 1.

12 Quant aux pays d’Europe centrale et orientale aujourd’hui privés de liberté par un régime totalitaire, ils rejoindront l’Europe communautaire, n’en doutons pas, dès qu’ils le pourront.’ Soutou, ‘La Déclaration Schuman’, 3 (fn. 5).

13 Alain Peyrefitte, C’était de Gaulle (Collection Quarto Gallimard, 2002), 60–61.

14 Novalis, ‘Christendom or Europe’, in Hymns to the Night, and Other Selected Writings, translated by Charles E. Passage (Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1960).

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