What are European values anyway?

As the Brexit negotiations progress and the European Union attempts to prevent more member states from turning against the EU, the question of “European values” is raised constantly. Those who criticize the union are said to be ignorant of the fact that Europe shares common values that it needs to protect. One has to wonder: what are European values anyway?

The Creations of Post-War Europe

After a fractured and war-ridden Europe of 1945, the instinctive reaction of leaders wasn’t to finally unite the continent behind European values. The question that countries such as France and the United Kingdom asked was: how can we prevent Germany from becoming a powerful force again, without repeating the mistakes of World War 1? It had been understood that the massive financial burden put on the Germans after the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, paired with the hyperinflation of the German Mark, had created an environment in which national socialism was able to prosper.

None of these mutual protection agreements are either a part or a product of the European Union.

For the establishment of the mutual defense of the Treaty of Brussels of 1948, and later the willingness to include NATO in 1949, no “European values” were discussed. These treaties were a mere safeguard for the security of a continent in which nobody knew which new fascistic power could arise.

1949 also saw the creation of the Council of Europe (which is unrelated to the European Union or its founding structures), that was meant to uphold human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Yet its founding members soon saw the need for the expansion of these principles, with member countries such as Turkey and Russia, which aren’t necessarily known for their nuanced approach to the aforementioned values.

Together with the Council of Europe, member countries created the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), protected by the European Court on Human Rights, situated in Strasbourg, France. The convention has an overall positive track record for protecting human rights, especially in the countries that see themselves losing in court the most, notably Turkey, Russia, and Ukraine. This is related to the fact that these countries, despite having signed the convention, are doing very little to drive legislative change to make human rights a national standard. In fact, the ECHR is more and more often seen as an invasive burden than a desirable addition.

And lest we forget: none of these mutual protection agreements, or the convention on human rights for that matter, are either a part or a product of the European Union.

What about the EU?

Now that we learned about the Brussels Treaty, NATO, and the Council of Europe, all of which hardly identify European values that extend from Lisbon to Moscow, we need to ask about the EU. It should also be noted that when “European values” are referenced these days, it almost always refers to support for the European Union.

Schuman’s declaration wasn’t about Europeanism, it was a manifesto for free trade.

Robert Schuman’s 1950 speech, laying out the Schuman Plan, is considered the cornerstone of the creation of the EU. The former foreign minister of France had laid out an agreement between Germany and France regarding the trade of coal and steel. Schuman believed that if both countries traded these essential industrial goods freely and without customs, then their mutual economic dependency created through this trade would make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible. See the European values yet? Not quite.

In fact, Schuman’s declaration wasn’t an appeal to a strong sense of Europeanism what so ever: it was a manifesto for free trade in order to restore peace on the continent. The newly-created European Community on Coal and Steel was joined by the European Atomic Energy Community (in order to create a European market on nuclear energy), and then by the European Economic Community.

Anything that could even be remotely identified as a value would be the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which has six titles: Dignity, Freedom, Equality, Solidarity, Citizens’ Rights, and Justice. It was proclaimed in 2000 and has only been legally binding to member states since 2009. If these are the European values that are commonly referenced, then they are as old as Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” and were as organically decided as the latter (that being not at all).

You Don’t Just Make Values Up

“European values” are a poor excuse for a political project that doesn’t have a monopoly on them anyway.

Charters and conventions are poor justifications for the existence of so-called European values. Or look at it this way: Americans feel more connected to each other than any European would ever be, even to people from their neighboring countries, but not even all Americans would agree on what “American values” are.

Values arise from feelings within a society. They can be held as a group, but only if that group really feels strongly about them. To state these values as declarations is just legalese that doesn’t touch on the hearts and minds of the people who are being governed.

“European values” are the poor excuse for a political project that doesn’t have a monopoly on them anyway. What would the insinuation be? That the UK leaving the EU would make it foreign to European values, like democracy and the rule of law? Where does that put Norway or Switzerland, which aren’t part of the EU?

If you believe that the European Union is a beneficial economic and political project that improves the lives of the citizens living inside its borders, then that’s an argument we can have. What we shouldn’t do is create a narrative through which we bully people into a moral argument on values that nobody could even define.


This article was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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