Formal and Vital Europe. Account of a lecture given by Renato Cristin

Formal and Vital Europe. Account of a lecture given by Renato Cristin

Europe comprises identity and tradition which is common to many millions of people in the entire continent, but in order to bring the European Union and its citizens closer together ‘Formal Europe’ must once again bind itself to the traditions and identity of the people who inhabit it. We must strengthen and support ourselves on the foundations of our values and mores that for centuries, even millennia have been Europe’s raison d’etre said Prof. Renato Cristin during the lecture held as part of the ‘JP2 lectures’ series.


On Thursday 20th May, the next in our series of lectures took place at the St. John Paul II Institute of Culture at Angelicum in Rome. The title of the lecture was Formal and Vital Europe. Tradition as the Ground of the Identity and was given by Prof. Renato Cristin, Italian philosopher and lecturer at the University of Trieste.


Prof. Cristin’s lecture began by reflecting upon the dichotomy which is presenting itself between Europe understood as a union of historical communities with all their particulars and political prerogatives, and an ‘Ideal’ Europe that is represented as spiritual and universal in its potential for a peaceful coexistence, as charted out by its eminent and notable thinkers and statesman. ‘Ideal Europe’ isn’t some utopian construct that has little claim to reality, noted the Italian philosopher, rather it is a kind of spiritual and common motherland of the Europeans, a notion strengthened by the feeling of belonging to one mutual religious civilisation whose transnational essence made itself evident during its many historical trials and tribulations.


The 20th century was a moment of reconfiguration for European dualism, taking the forms of opposition between a totalitarian Europe and a democratic Europe, and later of a Europe divided by the iron curtain wherein one part made for an experimental plane for those promoting the new Soviet person. It is within this context that St John Paul II came on the scene – a philosopher of eminent proportions, a theologian and statesman, devoting enormous effort to uniting his fragmented and fractured European motherland. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the European Union came to be seen as a reservoir for ideas and values articulating its new conceptual boundaries for the reintegration of central and eastern European countries into the European community, yet this vision was in fact a far cry from the formalistic bureaucracy that we have come to know today.


According to Renato Cristin, the initial impetus for European integration was not a dystopian outlook of a bureaucratic order of things, but rather a mutual feeling of European identity and historical and cultural heritage whose underpinnings reached to antiquity. Regrettably however, the model for transformation and integration of the countries from the former Soviet bloc didn’t account for the spiritual dimension needed, key to European tradition and values, and instead defaulted into the domain of the institutional-legal axis. This schism between formal Europe – that being the directives and projects of the bureaucrats from Brussels, and vital Europe – the organic nature and testimony of mutual binding of our respective countries which comprise the European Union, is the key dichotomy for contemporary Europe and the source of its deepest problems.


It is this dualism of a centralised bureaucracy belonging to Eurocrats and the common source of our experienced identity as citizens – the reality of our conscience and values – which constitutes the main reason for delegitimization of the powers of the European Union, according to the Italian philosopher. The one road to doing away with this dualism is building a power structure of politics in dialogue with local traditions and moreover shaped on a seedbed of their autonomous subjectivity while taking on the responsibility of a new vision and narrative, where citizens are the main political actors and informants. A key problem that stands in the way of the notion of formal Europe would be the reintegration of European values and traditions from their original sources within the transnational political community that is represented by the institution of the European Union. Another of its key elements would be acknowledging the vital spiritual source for the continent’s identity as Christian. 


The coming of a new standard for European politics needs to be accompanied by a revivification of constitutionalism, a movement which is needed that would require a fundamental statute recognising democratic functioning, and the prosperity and participation of its citizens. This constitution would have to remain in a state of a vital and organic-like continuum of agreement taking into account the historical lessons and experiences gained by the communities, whose role would be to both keep order while at the same time not permitting dominance of ideological constructs, trying all the while to find a middle ground between national sovereignty and European universalism. 


On this backdrop Prof. Cristin brought to mind words of John Paul II given at the UNESCO congress in 1980, ‘having at our disposal all kinds of available means, do guard your foundational sovereignty, that belongs to each and every country in the strength of its culture. Guard it as you do the pupil of your eye for the future of our multitudinous human family! Do not allow for your foundational sovereignty to fall victim to political or economic interests. Do not allow it to fall victim to either totalitarian nor imperialistic systems or hegemonies’.


A challenge that awaits the reconstruction of a vital order for Europe, aside from totalitarian inclinations and not to mention communist or extreme nationalistic tendencies, would be the ideology of post-identity where the historical heritage of a given community comes to be regarded as a dangerous redundancy to be unfettered from. It can be likened to a reflection in the mirror of nationalism where national identity is absolutized resulting with a conundrum in which either stance comes to be seen as faulty, since they don’t appreciate – as St. John Paul II draws attention to – how national communities are on the one hand a natural place for personal development yet on the other hand collaborate in a transnational common heritage which enriches all regardless of their nationality.


Furthermore, to this context Prof. Cristin evoked an example by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz having been a witness of the destructiveness of European wars, in proposing a call to transnational institutions for Europe whose role would be to assure and guarantee peace and stability: the European bank and European court, which would take the international common interest and economic responsibilities upon themselves. 


And at this point the philosopher noted how summoning a cooperation between international interests cannot be accompanied by the weakening of national identity, since the shaping of national values and ability to self-realise them as functions within international cooperation, guarantees a buffer for tendentious nationalism or chauvinism. Paradoxically, it is the postmodernist approach to deconstruction of notational identities and the culture of political and cultural deconstructionism in general that leads to jettisoning of instruments that are sorely needed by communities to help them in their defence of arbitrary powers that often come at the behest of ruling elites.


What we need is ‘more Europe’ by which we mean the spirit which unites the many and various cultural formations which created the basis and history for our countries of our European continent. Thus we can hold to the slogan of ‘more Europe’ whereby we use it in its antithetical sense, for the purpose of gaining back our European identity – finished up the philosopher, arguing for a paradigm shift when considering integration within Europe.


Karol Grabias


Translated by Tomasz Bieliński