Matthias Matthijs, senior fellow for Europe at CFR, discusses U.S.-EU relations and diplomacy in conversation with Mark D.W. Edington, bishop in charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar Series. This series convenes religion and faith-based leaders in cross-denominational dialogue on the intersection between religion and international relations. I am Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
As a reminder, this webinar is on the record and the audio, video, and transcript will be available on CFR’s website, CFR.org, and on the iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We are delighted to have Mark Edington with us today to moderate today’s discussion on “The Dynamics of the European Union.” Bishop Edington is charge of the Convocation of the Episcopal Churches in Europe. He has worked as an ordained Episcopal Priest, a higher education executive, social entrepreneur, writer, and editor. As a member of the founding board of three NGOs, Bishop Edington has a deep commitment to civic engagement with foreign policy and interfaith engagement in both dialogue and service. He writes frequently on issues at the intersection of public policy and religion, and has studied European integration and post-Cold War European security, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
So I’m going to turn the conversation now over to Bishop Edington to introduce our speaker and stimulate the conversation before we go to all of you for your questions and comments. So, Bishop Edington, over to you.
EDINGTON: Thank you so much, Irina. And welcome, everybody. Whatever time zone it is where you are, you are in the right place at the right time for a conversation about the future of the European Union. And I am delighted and a little bit intimidated to welcome as our speaker Professor Matthias Matthijs from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins. That is a thing to admire, and I say that as a proud graduate of the Fletcher School, Matthias. So I’m delighted that you’re here with us.
We have a lot to cover, Matthias. We’ve been given a very expansive, not to say vividly vague, title to cover today, which is “The Dynamics of the European Union.” I know that you teach courses on comparative political economy and an advanced seminar on topics in international political economy, and you’re doing work all the time on the subject of the European Union. For those of us who are joining us online, if you’re looking for an advanced seminar on the current and future of the European Union, you couldn’t do much better than to simply read Matthias’s recent essays in Foreign Affairs, because they have really covered a lot of the essential questions that I think we’re going to raise today.
So, Matthias, I’ve got three specific questions I want to ask you, but before I get to them I want to ask you to set the table for us. There are a lot of forces shaping the dynamics of the European Union today. We know about the war in Ukraine, but it really points to a larger question about the future of territorial integrity in Europe. We’ve learned about energy dependence in Europe, and we’re thinking about what that means for the future of Europe’s economies. We now have this new topic of the Windsor Framework, which seems to maybe be the end of the end of the Brexit story. And I know something that you care a lot about is the elite consensus, or lack of consensus, about what direction European integration should head in in the future.
So with all that on the table, tell us what you think are the principal forces shaping the dynamics of the European Union for the foreseeable future.
MATTHIJS: Thank you, Mark. And thank you, Irina. It’s a pleasure to join this CFR series on Religion and Foreign Policy, and international relations.
So thanks for this opening question. You’re always at a risk by starting out by saying that we kind of live at a watershed moment in European integration, because I feel like there’s been so many of those perceived moments in just my own lifetime. And history does seem to be moving very fast occasionally. And I think the last year or two, that’s definitely been the case.
That said, I think to understand the dynamics of the European Union, as our brief for today, I mean, you kind of start with where it started. So I think it started very much as this political peace project, with American support, that was hoping to make war between France and Germany, these two mortal enemies, historical enemies on the European continent, who had three wars over the period of seventy years, between 1870 and 1945, and of course two had then led to world wars, and were always at the heart of this conflict. And so you have to start by kind of looking back and seeing what an extraordinary achievement that was, right? I mean, it is very hard to imagine today war between those two breaking out again, even though, of course, they have very bitter differences occasionally on matters of policy.
So why is this invasion of Ukraine so important for today and for the European Union? Because it does go against this whole idea of the EU as a peace project, right? One of the first NATO secretary-generals was Lord Ismay, a UK diplomat. And he was asked, famously, what NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was for. And he said, it’s to keep the Americans in, the Germans down, and the Russians out. So sort of the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down. I think the German down was the last one. And so in many ways, what it didn’t succeed in was all of this.
I mean, in the end, the Americans have been trying to leave first the Middle East then, of course, Europe. I’m old enough to remember any kind of pivots to Asia as the defining agenda for American administrations. It started actually with the first Clinton administration in the early 1990s already, right, where they wanted to focus much more on Asia, and then, of course, were dragged back into Europe because of the Balkan wars. Then the Bush administration, who wanted to focus much more on China, and then 9/11 happened. A brief reset under Obama, but he wanted to do and he started doing the pivot to Asia. And then, of course, Trump tried to do the same thing.
So we’re now in the midst of this conflict where, for better or worse, American policymakers find themselves drawn back into the European theater, very much against their will, in a way, even though this administration, the Biden administration, in many ways, has a team that can rise to the occasion, right? So we can talk about that part. So going back to the European Union, I think what people have rightly been worried about is that it was seen as a project adrift, right? And so if you look at the last fifteen years, roughly starting exactly fifteen years ago. I mean, the spring of 2008, after the failed attempt to have a constitution for Europe, which was rejected first by French voters and then by Dutch voters, that seemed to be the biggest crisis at the time—which, in hindsight, seemed like a storm in a—a tempest in a teapot, as our British colleagues would put it.
We’ve had one crisis after another. The Eurozone crisis, the debt crisis of 2010-2012. Migration crisis. Crises over—of course, the first crisis over Ukraine in 2014, over Crimea and over the Donbas, with a very, in hindsight, tame response, even though there were sanctions then as well. Struggles with democracy and populism, just like here, with Hungary, with Poland, with countries that were kind of on an illiberal track. And then, of course, the pandemic, right? And so it has been kind of extraordinary, I think, that in the last few years slowly a new elite consensus—and, of course, I forgot Brexit, right? The vote to leave the European Union by the UK, which was completed by 2020-2021.
So what I think has been extraordinary in the last few years is that there is a new emerging consensus around more EU sovereignty, more EU strategic autonomy that’s emerging. The problem with the concept is that it’s vague. It’s ill-defined. And it means different things to different elites in different countries in the EU. It means different things to the Poles, to the Spaniards in Madrid, to the French in Paris, to the Germans in Berlin. And elites interpret these things differently. That said, it could be a glue that brings the EU elites closer together around this. So the idea from the pandemic that there needs to be more EU solidarity. And they set up a kind of massive fund, which is basically richer countries supporting poorer countries in their recovery from the pandemic.
There’s been a lot of solidarity with Ukraine when it comes to military support, when it comes to sanctions. And even there, despite Orbán’s sometimes huffing and puffing, they’ve moved forward with American support. And I think American leadership has been key here. And in a way, the fact that the United Kingdom has left, for better or worse, probably for worse definitely on the UK side but also from the EU side because it makes the EU less influential. That’s undoubtedly the case. But it does make finding consensus easier within the European Union context.
And so it’s held together. You could say it’s stronger. The European Commission, which is the executive arm of the European Union, was seen to have lost out to the European Council, which represents the heads of state or government from the EU. That was ten years ago. Now it’s very clear that the Commission can act. They can do a lot of things. They can finance weapons to be send to war zones. They can issue debt. They can do sanctions, right? They can use the EU market as a strategic tool in promoting human rights and its own democratic values. And also, it’s clearly still a haven for refugees and migrants because a lot of people want to come to Europe and want to reach these shores. But it’s also raising issues on how they govern this space together.
So a lot to cover there, Mark. Happy to go in the direction you want to take me. Despite all the crises of the last ten years, where it did sometimes seem that the fabric of the EU was unraveling, whether it was over the euro, over migrants, or over Brexit, it’s kept together. And arguably, it’s emerged a lot stronger and a more unitary actor as a result.
EDINGTON: That’s a great start. So thank you for that. We’ve got eight minutes remaining before we open for questions. And both you and I have seen the list of participants, so we know there are going to be questions. What I’m going to do is collapse two of my three questions into one, and then I’ll have one question for you at the end. The two questions that I’m collapsing into one: You talked about how the European economic area, as it first was under the Treaty of Rome, was a project to assure peace between France and Germany. So let’s talk about France and Germany.
Let’s talk about Olaf Scholz’s Zeitenwende, which you’ve written about. And you’ve been pretty sanguine about how Chancellor Scholz has managed that transition in Germany’s thinking about its role in Europe and the world. Maybe a little more sanguine than, let’s say, the Economist, which has sort of seen him as speaking a lot but not delivering greatly on especially spending in Germany about defense, and providing materiel to Ukraine.
So address that, if you would. And also, address President Macron’s dreams of sort of independent and autonomous Europe on matters of security and defense, which kind of ended, most hilariously, with Macron at the end of an extremely long table kind of alone and facing down President Putin. Not even in France, where I live, would you have many commentators who feel Macron’s been successful in his objective, but I think it’s still very real for him. I think he still has that view. So give us your sense right now of Germany, and France, and their ways of playing into the future that’s emerging in Europe.
MATTHIJS: Yeah. These are excellent questions. They’re hard questions. So let’s start with Germany, right? For somebody who’s been a student of Germany and German politics for over twenty years, I judge what Germany and Scholz, and the Scholz administration, has done by what the realistic alternatives were, not by what some idealized version of a German response would have looked like, right? Which, the idealized version is they cut themselves off completely from Russian energy on day one of the war, they spend massive amounts in defense and build up their own military at record speed, and then at the same time, every single potential weapon that they have lying around they send to Ukraine.
I mean, here is a country that has a deeply pacifist tradition. The two leading parties in this government, the Greens and the SPD, have long traditions of pacifism for the Greens, and of probably a romanticized version of Ostpolitik, the opening to the east, to the Soviet Union, that Willy Brandt started in the late 1960s—early 1970s. And honestly, even in 2017 they were still very much talking about the 2 percent defense ratio that NATO is imposing is ridiculous. These were some of the language that they were using. I have been very critical of Germany in previous pieces, especially during the Merkel era where they were too dependent on Russian energy. Somewhat naïve, right? Always putting economic interests before their own values, and so on.
So by any of those standards, I think they’ve moved remarkably fast. Was some of it forced their hand by Putin cutting off gas? Absolutely. And oil. But nobody asked them to spend an extra 100 billion euros on defense. Where it actually is going to go and in reality that remains to be seen. I think when it comes to defense don’t be surprised that decades to hoping to keep Germany down—(laughs)—are now going to take a while to make Germany a kind of real actor in defense policy, right? That said, I think if they’re in the corner—and Germans are slow to do this, but once they do, the ship has turned. I think Zeitenwende is real, even though Scholz absolutely has a communications problem.
When it comes to Macron, I agree with you. In the end it’s been very ham-fisted, the French approach to Eastern Europeans, especially Poland and the Baltics. They almost can’t help themselves. But it reminds me of Chirac’s famous line during the Iraq War, where he said over the Polish and Eastern European support for George Bush at the time that they missed a very good opportunity to shut up because they weren’t members of the EU yet and they should know their place, and so on. And Eastern Europeans have always felt this, sort of an almost second-class citizenship, the way the French treated them.
And I think that was a mistake then. And I think many of us, and I include myself in this, in Western Europe, never took the obsession that Poland and the Baltics had with Russia seriously enough, right, because it clearly wasn’t something emotional. It was something very, very real. And so that said, is there an alternative for European strategic autonomy? I don’t think so. I mean, in the end we will be in a world where the Americans want the EU to be a more reliable actor. The Europeans should want to be a more reliable actor because they may not always be able to rely on the United States. And in the end, when it comes to dealing with China, when it comes to dealing with Russia and other things, there are so many things that since the EU is shrinking as a percentage of global GDP, of the global world population, they’re going to have to act in concert on.
EDINGTON: OK. The last question I’m going to ask you, just before we open it up to questions, has to do with refugees, which you spoke about in your initial remarks. And I was really glad to hear you speak about them. So a little bit about what I do in Europe. I’m responsible for twenty-one different communities that are spread throughout Europe that right now are twenty-one refugee service communities. It’s what they’re doing. A little more than a year ago, there were 7.7 million refugees in the European space. And that was an issue of itself, with lots of people writing about it. The world of Angela Merkel and opening the doors of Germany to serve refugees and welcome them. And there was this sort of pushback politically about that. And we can say that one of the consequences of that has been a rise of anti-Islamic sentiment, Christian nationalism, various other things that are distasteful, at least.
Now there are almost 15.8 million refugees in the European space, largely driven by this miserable war in Ukraine. They are very different refugees from the 2014-2015 wave of refugees that came into Europe. They are largely Christian. They are largely women. They are easily trafficked, which is an issue. And they, unlike the first wave of refugees, have a fairly easy ability of moving back and forth from the places where they’ve been received as refugees, back to where they’ve come from. And realizing that economies have been destroyed and cities have been destroyed. And so there’s this movement back and forth that we see in the work that we do. One of the weird failures, to me, of European integration is the lack of a European-wide capacity for charitable work. There is no European way of forming a charitable entity. That is still a nationalized problem.
So my question for you is, how do you see the refugee moment that we’re living in, with this large number of refugees in Europe, shaping the political economy of the European Union in the future? How do you see it driving local politics, especially around the rise of the right? And what do you think are the options available to European states seeking to manage this problem?
MATTHIJS: Yeah, you’ve saved the best for last, if you will, because any question of refugees, migration, by definition there’s no easy answers, right? This is a problem that any rich—and especially Western countries—will struggle with. It’s a massive problem for any administration in the United States.
Part of the reason I think many of us have seen these kind of global surveys that were done by how the U.S., China, and Russia are perceived in the rest of the world since the beginning of the Ukraine war. I think what’s kind of to be expected was that when it came to the developed world, to developed countries, mostly Western countries, the image of the U.S. had improved, and the images of China and Russia had deteriorated, and Russia quite dramatically. I think that’s fairly normal, to be expected. What is, I think, more surprising is that the exact opposite had happened in the rest of the world
In the developing world, in the Global South, for lack of a better term, first of all, they don’t see this as a conflict that’s theirs. They see it as white people fighting white people in Europe. Nothing new there, especially if you look at recent history. By recent history, I mean the last 200 years. And they also see the immense solidarity with Ukrainian refugees. And they immediately contrast this with non-Western, non-white, non-Christian refugees back in 2015. With the exception, of course, of Germany, that kind of under Merkel took this extraordinary gamble to integrate well over a million Syrian refugees, who were mostly male, mostly young, and, of course, mostly Muslim. And many of them kind of low-skilled, or with not a ton of education.
And that’s been a great success story, which I think has been underreported. The German story of integrating Syrian and other young Middle Eastern refugees has been amazing. There’s been a lack of violence. That’s kind of the dog that never barked, in many ways. And I think people who are in favor of this policy are even surprised by this, who downplayed these threats.
EDINGTON: That’s true.
MATTHIJS: When it comes to refugees from Ukraine, you’re absolutely right. The EU doesn’t have a way to set up an EU-wide charity and to organize this. This remains a national issue, which is hard because given geography there are states that are on the receiving end of a lot of immigrants, Southern Europe and Eastern Europe. And then most of these people, many of these people, want to travel on to Western Europe where standards of living are even higher. And that’s where often there’s pressure to bring back internal borders.
There’s a reason why the EU hasn’t been able to solve this, because I think many leaders just don’t want to be part of the solution, because it would mean taking in more refugees, which would be hugely unpopular in their own countries. And that’s especially true in Western Europe. And they have in mind this threat of right-wing populists. And this is the last thing I’ll say on this—where Vladimir Putin interestingly plays up this.
So that’s where this weird connection between Putin’s rhetoric, nationalist rhetoric, Christian nationalism. I am the last thing that stands between you and us being overrun as a civilization by the Global South, by Muslims, by—and so on. And so you see this in the language of Orbán. Weirdly enough, the Polish leadership talks this stuff. Of course, they vehemently disagree with Russia on the Ukraine issue. But it’s something where many right-wing leaders always found some inspiration, right? Is this kind of protecting of European values—and by which they mean Christian values.
EDINGTON: Yeah. Thank you for that. I’m going to apologize to our participants for trespassing on the time they have to ask their questions. And I’m going to ask our colleague Rivka Gross at the Council to moderate the questions for us.
OPERATOR: Thank you, Bishop Edington.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
We will take our first question from John Pawlikowski from the Catholic Theological Union.
PAWLIKOWSKI: Can you hear me?
PAWLIKOWSKI: OK. My question is, given the growing secularization of many European countries, do you see any constructive role that religious institutions can play in the further integration and development of the European Union? We tend to concentrate on the negative, with Orbán and others, and Christian nationalism. But is there another side to the religious institutions in Europe at present?
MATTHIJS: Mark, can you answer that first, and then I’ll give some thoughts?
EDINGTON: Sure. I can make an effort of an answer.
So, John, I think it’s a really good question. And what I’d say, living in Europe as I do, and doing the work of a church in Europe, is for lots of reasons of history the place of the church as a source of providing social welfare, let’s say, has been fairly constrained by governments, especially in Western Europe over the past decades. That has to do with a history of, I’d say, frankly, injury on the part of the church to civil society. And also a sort of crisis of confidence of the role of the church in culture in Europe.
Having said that, religious communities still play a significant role in providing assistance to refugees and especially to recent arrivals in Europe. And that is certainly true among Islamic communities in Europe, and especially in France, which has the largest Islamic community of any country outside the Islamic world. It’s also true in Germany, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, places where my communities were. There are ways in which communities at the local level provide assistance in terms of language training, job skills training, helping people navigate local refugee systems. So, yeah, there is a positive role.
I don’t think, and this is a personal view, that there’s a prospective role for most religious communities in terms of public advocacy or a voice in the public square. That tends to be a source of some suspicion. And remember that I live in France, and I see that from the perspective of somebody who lives in France, where there’s just an allergy to voices that come from a religiously informed perspective. But I think in terms of providing assistance to those in need, yes, there’s very certainly a role for religious communities in the future.
MATTHIJS: Yeah, I would agree with everything Mark said. Also, don’t forget that certain parts of Europe, I think especially Southern Europe, that tend to be more traditional, more Catholic or more Orthodox, in the case of Greece, that went through a period of austerity and structural reform where, for better or worse, this is moments when civil society, in this case including church organizations, religious organizations, step in and have provided some of these social services to people.
But it’s not just social services, right? There is a great need for spirituality, I think, in some of these countries. The more, I hate to say “traditional,” because it seems like traditional is backward and secular is somehow progressive. And I don’t mean it this way. But in both Eastern and Southern Europe, the role of religious institutions is still stronger because church attendance and things like this are higher, especially in more rural communities and so on.
It's harder for me to think of a role for religious institutions in West and Northern Europe, because, again, if I think back of my own childhood in Belgium, when we did our holy communion, in a small town of twenty thousand people, there was about 150 who did their communion. The whole town came out to watch them. The last time I was back there were three, and this was mostly because grandma and grandpa insisted on it. This was not something these kids actually wanted. So it’s changed quite dramatically.
That said, there is still a kind of moral authority that comes with this. And clearly, if the EU pushes too much into a secular direction—meaning where there’s no role for spirituality, for religion, the backlash tends to come from more traditional communities and religious communities. Something that then the Euro-skeptic parties tend to play into, because they tend to be the ones that have a bigger role, or at least are more open for a bigger role, for religion the way it was traditionally practiced in these structures in these countries.
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Michael Strmiska from Orange County Community College, who goes back to the issue in Poland. He writes: One of the justifications for the illiberal tendencies in Hungary and Poland is Christian nationalism. Can you say anything about how the EU is responding to this factor?
MATTHIJS: Yeah. This is one of the toughest issues that the EU has had to deal with, is the kind of illiberal backsliding—and it’s not just anti-secular, pro-religious, right? I mean, it’s more anti-democratic, anti-rule of law tendencies that, of course, started with Orbán in 2010, but you also saw in Poland with the Law and Justice Party, PiS Party, coming to power in 2015 under the tutelage of Jarosław Kaczyński.
So one thing to say that’s, I think, important to understand the strength of both Orbán and Kaczyński and their parties, is that they are social welfare parties, right? They do provide in many ways a lot of services for people who are in need. So it always reminds me of the shock and horror many Westerners, Americans, Western Europeans had when Hamas won the first free elections in the Gaza Strip and did very well in the West Bank back 2006. It's because they were, de facto, the welfare state for many of these people. And were delivering social services. So people were able to set aside illiberal tendencies, violent tendencies, in many ways. So I think that can also be applied to the conflict of Northern Ireland, for example.
But so in the case of Hungary and in the case of Poland, the voting public that is attracted by Orbán’s message very much buys into this we want to keep Hungary for the Hungarians. And that means a certain white Christian identity that they want to protect from supposedly what they call the real, anti-Hungarian tendencies coming for the EU. That said, what’s changed in the last few years, and I think where both Orbán and Kaczyński are more on the defensive now, is that the economic climate has worsened. So you have higher inflation, which is true everywhere. True in the U.S. True in the UK, true in the EU. But it's even higher in places like Hungary and Poland. And why? And that’s, in many ways, the ironies of recent history, because they’re not Eurozone members.
And so, what was a great strength for Poland and Hungary ten years ago, meaning they weren’t members of the Eurozone. They could devalue vis-à-vis the euro. They were growing faster. They were attracting investment because international investors were worried about Eurozone countries. It’s now the opposite. They’re not protected by the umbrella of the Eurozone and the European Central Bank, which makes them, funnily enough, more reliant on EU funds. So there is this contradiction at the heart of Orbán’s regime and Kaczyński’s regime in Poland, is that they facing higher inflation than the rest of the Eurozone, which means they have to raise their interest rate faster. Which also means that they face pressures, capital outflows, which means they have to protect their currencies, which also means they have to raise interest rates even faster. Which makes it very expensive for them to issue new debt to finance these programs, these welfare programs, that keeps their voting public afloat.
So they switch to being reliant on EU funds, which have come in quite significant increases since the pandemic because of next-generation EU, 800-billion-euro fund that was set up to help these economies recover from the pandemic. But these funds come with strings attached. Are you following the rule of law? Are you respecting religious freedom? Are you respecting the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary, and things like this? So interestingly enough, I think we may have seen the peak of what some of these illiberal regimes are able to achieve within the European Union, now that they have to kind of go along with what Brussels is demanding when it comes to reforms.
That said, another side of your question, of course, addresses this discomfort that some people have with the European construction. This was not just an issue for Hungarians under Orbán. This is something Silvio Berlusconi raised when he was prime minister of Italy. Many of his party felt strongly that the EU should stress its Judeo-Christian heritage. Other conservatives in other parts of Europe have always been deeply comfortable with this kind of technocratic progressive discourse of the European Union, and say that it’s just basically creating what was often known as this democratic deficit in the EU, right, is that the EU becomes this regulatory state that manages things very far from people removed, but has real consequences for the day-to-day lives of people.
And then the idea is, well, can countries still decide for themselves? That’s where I think the states’ rights discourse in the United States is relevant. I mean, it’s gotten a bad name, a bad rap, if you want, the idea of states’ rights, because it’s often used by very unsavory characters to promote very unpalatable agendas—be it getting rid of science education or things like this, limiting the rights of people, whether it’s Ohio, Alabama, and Texas, or something like this. But that said, the original idea of states’ rights is that even within the United States, with fifty states, there are different preferences of voters. There are different tradeoffs that people are willing to make whether it’s on economic policy, whether it’s on social policy, whether it’s on ethical issues.
And a lot of people in EU member states feel the same way. I mean, Poland and Hungary may be more conservative on certain issues, while the Netherlands, Sweden, and Ireland may be much more progressive. These sorts of things should then be decided at a more local or at a more national level. But if the EU is going too far is imposing certain values, this may be a step too far.
EDINGTON: I just want to add really quickly a couple of ideas about Christian nationalism, because I think it’s such a powerful question. One is, churches, religious communities, are a lot like political societies, in that they cover a broad spectrum of ideas. And so in the same way that there are some conservative elements of churches, especially in Poland and less so in Hungary, that are happy and supportive of this Christian nationalism thing, there are many voices within churches and religious communities that oppose the idea of Christian nationalism, my own church strongly among them. So don’t fall into the easy trap of thinking that all churches, especially all religious communities, sort of fall into that sort of thoughtless track. Because it is certainly the case that some of the most important voices against those ideas come from within communities of faith.
The other thing, you mentioned, Matthias, in your earlier comments about Putin’s use of rhetoric around spirituality. And I think that’s actually really important when you think about popular views of what’s going on in Western Europe, as far as Ukraine goes. I’ve had this strange experience of I would just wade out into protests that I see in the streets of Germany and France. And I talk to people about what do you feel is at stake for you? And one of the things I think Putin has got right, actually, that we struggle to get right, is a language around the idea that what’s happening in Ukraine is about more than just economic arrangements, or political structures, or sort of abstract theory. It’s actually about how we make meaning as citizens in a society. And that is an inherently spiritual conversation, whether we like that word or not. That’s what meaning making is, ultimately.
And it is a little worrying to me that in this moment of—Europe is professedly secular. I know. I live there. I have my life there. It is what it is. But we’ve lost our ability to speak in those terms or to articulate that language. And this is ultimately a struggle about how we are to make meaning as citizens in a society. So I hope—I’m a reader of Charles Taylor—I hope that we will find ways of articulating that without feeling that we are caving into—or, sliding back into a kind of confessionally identified politics. So that’s all I’ll say about that.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Dr. Heather Laird from the Center for Muslim Health and Islamic Psychology. She writes: Students in the U.S. are not regularly exposed to thinkers like Hamann and other conservative scholars, leaving them only exposed to liberal secular thinkers, which sounds like what you are describing is similar in Europe. However, in terms of interfaith experiences in America, we have been able to create bridges to work together. It sounds like you are indicating that this is different or not the case in Europe. Is this correct? What is needed to change this?
MATTHIJS: It’s a difficult question. It’s definitely different in Europe in the sense that I see very little interfaith dialogue. I mean, I have lived in the United States myself for twenty years. And in general, I think this is especially true amongst the most educated parts of society, the elites, for lack of a better term, where it’s almost looked down upon if you are too religious. It’s almost an admission of something you need—it’s become very kind of materialistic and so on, right? That said, it’s different for younger generations, right? I feel like younger generations, students especially, are definitely more open to this, right? To interfaith exchanges, to learning honestly about different faiths, whether that’s Islam or that’s Buddhism, Hinduism, broader Christianity, the strands within Christianity, and so on, right?
It’s more like the Baby Boom generation that was still very much raised within Christian faith, where this was the pillar of their society—I mean, even when I was growing up, everything was happening around these pillars, right? You either were part of—in Belgium, you were part of a kind of Christian pillar, a socialist pillar, or a liberal pillar. And they had different vacations. They went on different camps together. The whole society, the kind of day-to-day life, was organized around it. Most of that is gone, but it has made younger people much more open to learning about completely different experiences, especially from the immigrant communities. So it seems to me youth culture is much more open to dialogue than I think sometimes we take from older generations.
And that’s something that shows up in voting patterns all over Europe, right? I mean, it really is overwhelmingly an older population that votes for these kind of very conservative parties. But when there is a younger population that’s more conservative, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re conservative on the point of view of what religion means for them. But Mark may have more ideas of this.
EDINGTON: Matthias, I certainly—I agree with everything you said. In fact, I think at least in France, where I live, there’s a kind of generational shift happening right now in terms of the openness to conversation about the role of faith in individual life, in societal life, in community life. Young people are actually interested in and eager to have those conversations and questions. And I’m sure you know, there’s been some friction within the schools, within educational systems in France, about the legitimacy of those questions in the context of public education.
Of course, it used to be the case that in a very secularized France, that the schools could essentially control kinds of information the students were receiving on these matters. And now, in the age of social media, that is completely gone. And so there’s a feeling as though there’s a need to, in some way, respond to this. At the same time, France has had these extremely tragic instances of violence and assassination against public school teachers on matters that were essentially religiously defined. So that tends to stiffen, let’s say, the ability for this discourse to take place.
I would agree that I think the interfaith conversation in a European context is less thickened, let’s say, than it is in the United States. At the same time, the ecumenical conversations, or the conversation among churches of the Christian tradition in Europe, is much thicker in Europe than it is in the United States. Most religious traditions in the United States—and here I’m quoting a scholar in my own tradition—are essentially Euro-tribal denominations, right? We brought them with us from Europe. Those have real significance historically, culturally in the context of Europe. And so since the Second World War, especially the formation of the World Council of Churches, the habit of ecumenical conversation has been much deepened, and especially conversations between the Vatican and Protestant traditions matches that description as well.
Interfaith relationships are more difficult. And they’re essentially aligned with the issues that we talked about earlier about refugees and the growing population of Islamic folk in Europe. And how that conversation now takes place is, churches like mine are trying to take a leading role in that. But it is difficult to get started, often.
OPERATOR: We have no participant questions at this time. Bishop Edington, do you have any further questions?
EDINGTON: I do. So I have a question. Matthias, if I can, I’m going to return to an earlier question I had that I wanted to leave aside for our participants to take part in. So I know that you’re interested in what has been described in your bio as the collapse of—or, maybe we might want to say, the erosion of the elite consensus around integration of Europe. Can you say more about that? And do you distinguish between the view of elites and the broader public? Are publics following that trend? Or are they not?
A simple thing that I would identify, having first come to Europe many years ago as an undergraduate student and now living there, is the euro. You know, I don’t have to change my money every time I cross a national border right now. And I cannot imagine European publics easily going back to a previous world now that they’ve become used to a single shared currency across national borders. So can you say a little bit about what you’re working on in the case of this consensus?
MATTHIJS: Yeah. Yeah, so with collapse of elite consensus, I see the great ten years of consensus on European integration from 1985 to 1995, right? Which also, I think, is often forgotten, was a unique period in history where the Soviet Union was about to end, Germany was about to reunify, the whole world seemed to be moving—and this was the kind of peak of the third wave of democratization. The whole world was moving into a direction of market liberalization, deregulation, and, of course, democratization. China was moving in that direction. Russia was moving in that direction. And so it’s in that moment that Europe agreed on and put in treaties the single market, Single European Act, the euro with Maastricht, and, of course, enlargement, right?
So not only was it decided that markets and making markets, creating this kind of more perfect single market—which in the United States we’re nowhere near close to because every state has its own licenses for services. Every state has different standards sometimes, and there’s all kind of protectionist barriers when it comes to public procurement for states, and that you can give priority to your own citizens, and so on. So Europe actually took this way further than the United States ever dreamed on. And this was within a union of sovereign states, not within a federal state like the United States. So that’s for the single market.
The single currency, and I agree with you. Most people don’t want to go back to it. But it did take away much of kind of national discretion when it came to monetary policy, exchange rate policy, and financial policy. Where they could give priority to their own banks, and so all these things from a market perspective were great. But from a political perspective, were second-best, because in general, national elites want to control these things because they want to funnel it into certain projects, and so on. And enlargement then meant that this consensus was pushed on to a much more heterogeneous union.
So the beauty is, this consensus worked. Late 1990s, early 2000s, all the way into 2008, this seemed to deliver the goods in faster growth. There was convergence in living standards between north and south, between east and west. Until it starts to unravel. And so I see the euro crisis, the refugee crisis, all as kind of symptoms of that previous consensus that was so hard to change, because it was according to treaties that you could only change by unanimity.
So the collapse of elite consensus, if you look at the big four, the four G7 countries, I summarize as exit, voice, and loyalty, the way Albert Hirschman described it ages ago in a different context. The UK chose exit. They didn’t want to have anything to do with that project anymore, for better or worse. And we can get into that another time. (Laughs.) The Germans stayed loyal because the status quo was working for them, and they were doing very well by the early 2010s. And then different kinds of voice from Italy and France. France wanted more voice at the EU level. Italy wanted more discretion at the national level.
So that, I see as the last crisis. The last ten years of crisis, where basically the four key capitals of European integration, the four G7 countries, all looked in different directions. There wasn’t this national consensus, the way there was, uniquely, in the late 1980s, early 1990s. So I see now, in the last two or three years, a crystallization of a new consensus around resilience, around sustainability, around fighting global warming together. About building up joint defenses together, building more fiscal capacity. And I think it’s easier, because of the exit of the UK. It’s easier because of German loyalty to the previous system, and thanks to the Zeitenwende, is changing rapidly.
And in the end, by default, you end with a sort of Franco-Italian compromise, where there is going to be some more discretion on certain things that are important, because different countries want to make different decisions at the national level, and more European solidarity. So we see the kind of the germ, the embryo, if you want, the beginnings of this new consensus around more EU sovereignty that gives more voice to the EU and to the national level at the same time, that kind of in a way responds flexibly to some of these legitimate demands of its—of its people.
And so there is hope that makes me partially optimistic about the next decade, because elites seem to be pointing in the same direction. It doesn’t mean they agree on everything. But so that’s how I would see the last decade of crisis, as kind of the limits in this kind of market first, politics second, right? In Foreign Affairs, I’ve called this economics—in the end, put politics before economics. And I think they’re starting to do that again, as the previous consensus has kind of run out of steam.
OPERATOR: We have a written question from Sana Tayyen from the University of Redlands. She writes: Do the Europeans expect more of an active role from the United States in the European refugee crisis? How involved is America in the refugee crisis in Europe?
MATTHIJS: That’s a good question, Sana, because this was very difficult during the Trump years, right, where they limited to a kind of ridiculously low number on how many refugees the United States would take in, to the point where Canada was taking in more. And it’s not clear to me—and I think Mark has addressed this when it comes to Ukrainian refugees—that Ukrainian refugees don’t want to leave Europe. They don’t want to go to the United States.
I mean, I’m sure some do, and they could well find their way, but many of them want to stay in Poland, in Romania, in Moldova, because it’s easy for them to drive back and forth to check on their house, to check on family members, to check on loved ones who stayed behind. And because they still very much hope that they’re going to go back. It’s very different from Syrian refugees who are younger, who are planning to start a new life in Germany. They learned the language. They got educated. They get jobs, and things like that.
I think it’s frustrating for European elites the way the migrant and refugee conversation has taken a kind of very negative turn in the United States, which is after all a much more Christian country, or a much more religious country, in broader terms, than Europe is.
EDINGTON: Thank you for that distinction. (Laughter.)
MATTHIJS: And so it is striking, how the United States talks a great deal about how Europe should be doing more, but on that front, the EU is really bearing the brunt of this. So the U.S. has sent a lot of weaponry, a lot of aid, a lot of advice, and a lot of military skills and know-how to Ukraine directly. The lion’s share, by any means. But also, let’s not forget, and I think it’s something European leaders are very quick to point out, not a single American consumer is really suffering from this war in a way that in Europe they are when it comes to rationing heating, when it comes to much higher oil prices. In the end, did gas prices go up in the U.S. last year? They did. But they came down very rapidly, right? And it was nowhere near to some of the gas price we’ve seen in the last twenty, thirty years—some of the spikes that we’ve seen there.
EDINGTON: I totally agree. I think the role of the United States in the European migrant and refugee crisis has really been through private charity and through 501(c)(3)s, it’s been through charitable foundations that have European partners that are working with them to provide for the needs of refugees in the European space. It hasn’t been a direct government-to-government kind of assistance. I think largely U.S. officials have, in those conversations, simply pointed to the issues in Latin and South America to say, look, we have our own proximal refugee issue that we need to deal with. So what I observe is a lot of the assistance that has come, has come through private and charitable channels.
OPERATOR: Our final question is a follow-up from Michael Strmiska. He writes: Returning to the refugee situation, how are European leaders, political parties, and public responding to the accusation that their open door to Ukrainians reveals a racist, Christian bias?
MATTHIJS: Yeah. I mean, and a sexist bias, let’s not forget. I mean, women and children seem to be a lot easier thing to do than young, unmarried men from the Middle East. They don’t really have a good answer to it, right? They start by saying, look this is right next door. This is immense solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Of course, Poland has taken the lion’s share, as has Hungary and Romania. Places that were very hesitant to take in Muslim migrants. And so, yeah, I think people kind of shrug their shoulders and say, it is what it is. It’s easier because they’re more “likeminded,” whatever that means, even though they are very much aware of the double standard that they’re applying.
I think the justification they find is that they hope this will be temporary, that this will be temporary relief for maybe a year, maybe two years. But that said, also don’t think that there’s not slowly fatigue sinking in with that as well.
EDINGTON: Absolutely right.
MATTHIJS: In certain schools in Warsaw, for example, where half the kids are Ukrainian, where they don’t speak Polish and things like this, I mean, this is a huge adjustment. This is all fine for a few weeks, maybe a few months. But once you get into the next school year and things like that, especially for certain local communities, this becomes more of a burden. So we have not great numbers on this, because it was 4.5 million, at some point it was 2.5 million. And there is some back and forth. But I’m going to let Mark have the last say on this.
EDINGTON: (Laughs.) Well, thanks. Michael, I think I would say it is certainly the case that publics and governments are aware of that dichotomy. I think there’s no doubt that there’s an awareness of that, to more or less—to greater of lesser degrees. Certainly, Germany was remarkably charitable in receiving as many refugees as it did, and under incredibly generous conditions. Finding places for people to live, helping them get sorted out with job skills, and enter the workforce. So I think it’s not a simple dichotomy here.
But I would also add just this, in conclusion. When I speak to people in Europe about this, what I hear, in so many words, is not that their experience with Ukrainian refugees is, oh, well, they look more like me. It’s rather that their country looks more like mine. I can imagine if what’s happening now in Ukraine can happen there in Europe, it could happen to my country too. And that is especially true in the Baltics. It’s true in Poland. It’s true in Slovakia and Moldova. So it’s a much more immediate sense of the threat of instability, of the threat of territorial integrity being violated, because of the nature of the conflict that’s creating these refugees.
FASKIANOS: Well, we are at the end of our time. That is a great way to close this very rich conversation. Thank you both, Matthias Matthijs and Bishop Edington. We appreciate it.
If you would like to follow Matthias on Twitter his account is @m2matthias. And Bishop Edington is @markedington. We also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy program on Twitter at @CFR_religion. And also please do write us at [email protected] with any suggestions or questions. We hope you will join us for our next Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar on religion and technology on Thursday, March 23, at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time.
Again, thank you both. We really appreciate it. And thank you all for your questions and participation in today’s discussion.
EDINGTON: Thanks, everybody.