Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Limits of European Unity

David Koyzis


By David Koyzis

December 22, 2014


World War II had been over for only six years, and Europe was a shadow of what it had been four decades earlier. Its people were exhausted by the effects of two world wars that had laid waste to large swaths of the old continent. Millions of people had lost their lives, and millions of survivors continued to suffer from physical infirmities caused by the conflict. Entire peoples were uprooted from their homelands and sent packing because they happened to find themselves on the wrong side of the new borders.

Could Europe ever recover from these apocalyptic events? In 1951, six European countries – France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries – began to do so by forming the world’s first supranational organization, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which secured a common market in these commodities. This was intended to be the first in a series of treaties that would integrate the European nations’ economies and lead eventually to the creation of a European federation.

While North Americans may find it difficult to comprehend why so many European leaders were committed to a united Europe, in many respects they were simply following the precedent set here beginning in the 1780s, when the American founders saw fit to unite the thirteen recently independent states in the world’s first constitutional federation. Over the next nearly two centuries, similar federal systems were set up in Canada, Australia, India, and Germany, all of which imitated features of the American version. Why not try this in Europe as well?

The architects of what would come to be known as the European Union were, for the most part, devout Roman Catholic Christians schooled in the social teachings of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI. These included Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, and Alcide de Gasperi. The spectacular failure of such political illusions as nationalism and communism had persuaded them that the Christian faith had better resources for rebuilding Europe and thereby preventing a third global war. Their assumption was that if the European nations were more tightly integrated economically, their material interests would become so thoroughly intertwined that conflict would become virtually impossible. Political unity would surely follow in due course.

The operative principle deemed conducive to federal unity was subsidiarity, as articulated especially in Leo’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum and Pius’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931). Subsidiarity teaches that, within a larger social order, smaller associations should be allowed to function without undue interference from the larger. As Pius puts it, “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.” Only if one of these “lesser” associations should be unable to fulfill its responsibilities would a “greater” association step in temporarily to offer help (subsidium). Subsidiarity might have been anticipated by the American founders in the Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which provides that all powers not granted to the federal Congress are reserved for the states or for the people in their various non-political capacities.

While the project for European unity is now over six decades old, the prospects for a fully united European federation are uncertain at best. The original six have expanded to twenty-eight members, with Croatia joining as recently as last year. In the best case scenario, this large number will make for an unwieldy federation. With twenty-four official languages, some €330 million of the EU’s total budget goes to translation. Furthermore, because the EU now straddles the boundary between the post-Christian west and the Orthodox east, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Europe to speak with one voice in international affairs because of the different cultural and political assumptions found in the two regions. And one need hardly mention the crisis in the eurozone.

All of these factors indicate that the European project may finally have reached its geographical, economic, cultural, and spiritual limits. If the EU’s leaders are unwilling to admit to any influence of Christianity, much less of Catholic social teachings, on its own origins, it may be because it is attempting to be too many things to too many people. Perhaps it is time for Europe to stop growing at last and to pay closer attention to strengthening its own institutions and identity while guided by the principles of justice and especially by a respect for subsidiarity.


—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada and is the author of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God.


“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”