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The European Union and Its Values – Normative Guiding Principles or Moral "Fig Leaf"?

The European Union is said to be a “community of values”. This definition is not new. Today it even seems to have become a commonplace when discussing the EU’s moral standards. In 2012, the EU received a high-profile confirmation in this role when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its successful contribution to the advancement of values such as peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights.

Yet this definition is not uncontroversial. Different country-specific characteristics, divergent national identities and different priorities are accompanied by the erosion of a united and clearly defined consensus on values in an age of pluralization and globalization. Thus it is appreciably more difficult to really speak of a common European bedrock of values in a convincing way, regardless of their being set down in writing in the Lisbon Treaty. Recent figures illustrate the point: A Eurobarometer survey in early 2018 showed that a narrow majority (53 per cent) of Europeans, when asked, thought that the EU member states were “close” in respect of common values. But, at the same time, 41 per cent of those surveyed were of the opinion that the EU countries were “far apart from each other” on this point.1

Furthermore, the appeal to values too often seems to stop at a trite declaration of intentions. Codes of values conflict with the political forces of economic self-interest, strategic relations and pragmatic considerations. As a result, they are not infrequently degraded to the status of a moral “fig leaf”, pushed to the margins of relevant decision-making processes, or completely ignored.

Yet if European values are to be more than a moral fig leaf, and if they are to gain (better) acceptance by Europe’s citizens, the EU must ensure that its political actions are measured against these ethical standards at all times and in all places. But it should also set these standards itself, and explain more resolutely both what European values are, and what the European values are in each specific case.

Values as normative guiding principles

Our starting point, therefore, is the concept of “values” – originally borrowed from economics – and the very fundamental question of what values are in purely formal terms, before we fill them with substance. This is not the place for a conclusive definition that would serve as a comprehensive theory of values. But on a very general level it can be said that values such as peace, security, happiness and many more are normative general principles. These principles guide individuals or groups in their choice of actions and in their shaping of the world. They function as a motivating determinant of human activity and achievement, and are in most cases to be protected by norms, i.e. by specific guidelines or expectations for human behavior. Their establishment is always also dependent on social, cultural, subjective and situational factors; this often impedes any extensive, widely shared consensus of values, as indicated above.

At the same time, values can certainly also be brought in as design principles, i.e. as the ultimate or most fundamental standards of guidance for forming political and ethical judgements; or as criteria, i.e. as differentiating factors for nuanced and objective decision-making, in order to guide actions and assess the practicability of norms.2

Values as a normative basis for the EU

European values can therefore be understood to be those normative general principles which guide the EU’s actions as a global political actor, and which it refers to repeatedly in key places in its constitutional texts. It is “striking that these values rather express the character of political and legal principles. Moreover, as core principles of modern democracies, they are not specifically European, but rather have universal significance, precisely because they are quite simply fundamental to constitutional democracies.”3 The EU sets corresponding values for itself in Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty (EUT-L), under the title “Common provisions”. In a rather rhapsodic and probably incomplete list, it states:

“The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”

This explicit foundation of values, which also appears in similar diction in the preamble to the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, represents a commitment to a normative moral basis for the EU. Thus an external significance attaches to it, since it guides the Union’s specific political action in all fields of international politics. But on the other hand, and primarily, it has an internal significance: European values are a fundamental political basis reflecting the (collective) identity – or better: an important political component of identity. They reflect the EU’s self-image as a political community, a self-image that is mainly historically determined and is defined in specific opposition to violent chapters in European history.

The individually listed values are therefore decisive for the formation, development, continued existence and expansion of the Union. Hence a constitutive importance attaches to them for the European integration process. They are understood as universal basic values that are shared by all member states and are therefore common and uniting. They are intended to promote inner-European cohesion and the European way of life, and are themselves to be promoted (Art. 3 EUT-L). Hence only European countries which are expressly committed to these values, to respecting and promoting them, may apply to become a member of the EU (Art. 49 EUT-L). Thus the “Copenhagen Criteria” – a set of rules adopted in 1993 by the then EU heads of state and government – state as a political criterion that membership requires a candidate country to guarantee democracy, the rule of law and human rights. If, however, there is a clear risk of a serious and persistent breach of the values cited in Article 2 by a state which is already a member of the EU, the Council after hearing the member state in question and inviting it to submit its observations, in accordance with Article 7 EUT-L, and acting by a qualified majority, may decide to suspend certain rights of that state. A current example of this is the debate over respect for the rule of law in Poland.

Abstract language of values and value ideals

For good reason, this foundation of values agreed by treaty is frequently criticized as being an ideal policy objective and empty political rhetoric, intended to demonstrate moral superiority owing to weaknesses in practical policy. There is also a widespread feeling that the content of the stated values, all too frequently, is left undetermined. This accusation arises since discussions about values primarily take the form of agreements on abstract principles. The resulting abstract language of values is an unresolved problem, not only for ethical reflection but also when it comes to transferring these same values into European societies and implementing them in political practice. Too often, it simply remains unclear what these values are in general terms, and what the individual proclaimed values are supposed to mean in detail and in the respective context.

For, of course, who seriously wishes to question that human dignity is inviolable, that it should be respected and protected? But what specifically defines the “decent life” that is so often talked about (not only in peace ethics)? What are the corresponding minimum standards for a decent life, without referring only to current challenges concerning refugees and migration? And furthermore, one can ask: Will the EU as a community of states and in the form of its individual member states always live up to this commitment to values?

Justice is certainly also one of the central pillars of our European moral compass. But what (form of) justice are we actually talking about? Legal justice, distributive justice or transactional justice, as Aristotle distinguished long ago? Equal opportunities, fair participation, the capability theory of justice or intergenerational justice –referring to the the latter not only in the context of the challenges of climate change? Here too, there would need to be a constantly renewed evaluation of whether the EU was really always acting justly through its practical measures.

Finally: Who could refuse to make a stand for the upholding of human rights based on human dignity – but for which human rights specifically? The human right to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of religion, to seek asylum against persecution, to equal pay for equal work, to be protected from slavery (including its modern forms)? Again, the question arises: Does the EU, including its institutions and member states, meet these expectations?

There is no easy and certainly no general answer to these possibly provocative questions. They might even fall short altogether. But hopefully they can raise awareness of at least three aspects:

firstly that a theoretical and abstract appeal to values does not get us very far; that European values must shape the being and actions of the EU, its structures, institutions and member states in practical and specific ways.

secondly that it is always necessary to clarify what exactly we are talking about. Within the European Charter of Fundamental Rights further distinctions can be found, e.g. for abstract values such as freedom and equality. It cites classical negative rights to liberty such as the protection of personal data, freedom of thought, freedom of assembly and of association, and the freedom to choose an occupation. In the section on equality, it refers to the two general principles of equality before the law and the prohibition of discrimination based on genetic features or sexual orientation. Other values such as the protection of human rights are developed further in the European Convention on Human Rights.

thirdly that values also have an inherently idealistic character, which conflicts with pragmatic political reality, without wishing to dismiss them a priori as being in any case unattainable objectives. Ideals are fulfilled gradually, and frequently at the end of a long and difficult path. We are moving toward this ideal, which determines our direction, and the EU has already covered a very long distance in this respect. A touch more modesty and insight into the reality of Europe’s own inadequacy is therefore advisable, just as it is equally important to persistently adhere to a clear and well defined common European value-orientation. Despite all the justified criticism, value neutrality cannot be an option.

Are European values Christian values?

Also readily to hand is a (closer) definition of European values as Christian values, which should be preserved and in many places rediscovered. This is certainly by no means incorrect, as a glance at the preamble of the Union Treaty shows:

“Drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law [...].”

Yet we should firstly be warned against a dishonest and one-sided monopolization of European values as Christian values; it is important to differentiate and to avoid exclusion. Secondly, there is a need for greater precision, otherwise the discussion of Europe’s Christian values remains on too general a level.

It can hardly be doubted that Europe and the EU do have a special Christian character. But for the sake of the wider picture, it is still worth mentioning that trinity which the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, was not the first to mention: Both Europe and the EU have been shaped by the Christian faith, Roman law, and Greek philosophy. This triad was pointed out by the first President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Theodor Heuss: “There are three hills from which the West took its origins: Golgotha, the Acropolis in Athens, and the Capitol in Rome. All have influenced the West spiritually and intellectually, and all three should be regarded as one unit.”4 Addressing the German Bundestag in September 2011, Benedict XVI used exactly the same metaphor: “The culture of Europe has arisen from the encounter between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome – from the encounter between the faith of Israel, the philosophical reason of the Greeks and the legal thought of Rome. This triple encounter forms the inner identity of Europe.”5 Thus for Heuss and Pope Benedict, the Christian faith is one essential source of European culture and the European value-culture, but not the only one.

European values therefore reside within and are inspired by the Christian faith in a special but by no means exclusive way. Consequently, the adjectival attribute “Christian” must not become monopolistic. It must not be associated with an exclusivity claim: European and Christian culture, European and Christian values must now leave room for the “non-Christian” as well.

Peace as a central value

Peace can be considered one of, if not the central European value. Results from the recent Eurobarometer survey mentioned earlier show that Europeans believe peace is the value that best represents the European Union (39 per cent). It is also the value most important to them personally (45 per cent). Even though value perceptions vary widely, this is still a very clear result, and in view of European history it is only logical.

Peace is not only a basic value, but also an original essential feature of the EU. The EU was brought into being after two devastating World Wars, starting with the European Coal and Steel Community, as an economic union. But it was also a peace and reconciliation project. Possibly the Europeans would not have managed this themselves without external impetus, and certainly economic interests and control were initially the main concerns. Nevertheless, the EU was meant to bring peace to the European nation states, and it did so, even though this was initially limited to the Western European countries. But challenged on various occasions over the decades, and not just by the Cold War and the Balkan conflicts, its character as a peace project has permanently changed. Today, more than ever, the EU has to ask itself what peace means, and how this peace can be established and maintained.

Thus there is more to it than the absence of armed and violent conflicts, important though this is. More than anything else, peace is above all a dynamic, continuous and suspenseful process of cumulative conflict resolution that is guided by clear principles. It focuses on causes, seeks to reduce violence, and constantly presents new tasks. The EU now has to orient itself to this process, particularly in its foreign and security policy. At the moment, however, its foreign and security policy is focused more on ideas such as security and resilience than on the concept of peace itself.

Value orientation in specific terms: European foreign and security policy

Not only for the orientation to the central value of peace, but also for the practical implementation of the entire code of values, the European Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) represents a widely diversified, highly topical and relatively recent area of application and proving ground. It has been constantly developed and strengthened, particularly since the beginning of the 1990s, via the individual “treaty stages”.

Despite the remaining justified criticism and hitherto unresolved implementation problems, which we do not need to mention individually here, there is currently no lack of further approaches and inputs in the field of foreign and security policy. These are also ­accompanied by changed terminology. Some important defense decisions were taken in 2017, with the launch of a European ­Defence Fund, and agreements to partici­pate in Permanent Structured Cooperation ­(PESCO).

Recognizing these current trends, CFSP and its operational part, the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), are at core expressly intended to help safeguard the EU’s fundamental values and interests, and hence contribute to peace and security in the world. This is meant to raise the EU’s profile as a reliable stabilizing factor and partner, and as a model in a globalized world. Hence the transfer of general European founding values to the specific application area of foreign and security policy in Art. 21 EUT-L is hardly surprising:

“The Union’s action on the international scene shall be guided by the principles which have inspired its own creation, development and enlargement, and which it seeks to advance in the wider world: democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for human dignity, the principles of equality and solidarity, and respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter and international law.”

As part of this expressly stated “values-led foreign policy,”6 the EU is pursuing two main aims: firstly to promote and spread European values beyond the EU’s borders, as indicated in Art. 8 EUT-L; secondly to adhere to these values in the context of the EU’s specific foreign and security policy challenges. On June 28, 2016, the EU published its key security policy strategy document “Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe,” also known as the Global Strategy. It cites the following examples of such challenges: counterterrorism, climate change, migration and refugees, and several more.

The values set out in Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty are at first abstract and unspecific. If they are to be genuine European values and common guiding principles, they will need to specifically shape the identity and actions of the EU as a whole, of its member states individually, and also those of potential executive organs such as a European Army with regard to these problem areas.

1 European Commission (2018): Standard Eurobarometer 89, Spring 2018. Report: European citizenship. (accessed November 7, 2018).

2 Cf. Merkl, Alexander/Schlögl-Flierl, Kerstin (2017): Moraltheologie kompakt. Ein theologisch-ethisches Lehrbuch für Schule, Studium und Praxis. Münster, pp. 10–12.

3 (Translated from German). Mandry, Christof (forthcoming): “Das Wertefundament als ethisch-normative Grundlage der Europäischen Union – ‘empty rhetoric’? Kritik und Verteidigung.” In: Merkl, Alexander / Koch, Bernhard (eds.): Die EU als ethisches Projekt im Spiegel ihrer Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (Studien zur Friedensethik 63). Baden-Baden/Münster.

4 (Translated from German). Heuss, Theodor (1956): Reden an die Jugend. Tübingen, p. 32.

5 (Translated from German). Benedict XVI. (2011): Rede im Deutschen Bundestag am 22. September 2011. (accessed October 27, 2018).

6 (Translated from German). Algieri, Franco (2010): Die Gemeinsame Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik der EU. Vienna, pp. 158–164.



Alexander Merkl is a junior professor of theological ethics in the Department of Catholic Theology at the University of Hildesheim. He previously worked as a research fellow at the University of Regensburg, and as a project director for European foreign and ­security policy at the Institute for Theology and Peace (ithf) in Hamburg. His dissertation “‘Si vis pacem, para virtutes.’ Ein tugendethischer Beitrag zu einem Ethos der Friedfertigkeit” won the European Society for Catholic Theology “Theological Book of the Year” award in 2017, in the emerging scholar category.