In Europe, a Search for What Defines the EU's Moral Identity ; Newer EU Members Struggle to Promote a More Traditional Morality

Article excerpt

Europe, it seems, is having a bit of an identity crisis. As leaders from Budapest to Barcelona vie to guide the continent's forward course, the needle on Europe's moral compass is bouncing frenetically between two increasingly polarized camps.

* The European Union last month rebuffed Poland's president over his interest in promoting a return to the death penalty. Tuesday, meanwhile, Polish students rallied against a plan to have stronger religious and patriotic values taught in schools.

* Last winter, Slovakia provoked an EU outcry when it negotiated a draft treaty with the Vatican to give legal protection to doctors who refuse to perform abortions.

* In 2004, the EU was embroiled in a dispute about whether its proposed constitution should include a reference to Christianity as a defining influence on European culture.

Amid the turmoil, however, thinkers from both sides are starting to agree on one point: Restoring Europe's moral underpinnings is essential if it is once again to develop a strong sense of identity.

"What the EU needs is a more robust affirmation of what makes it unique - its identity, its values," says Timothy Shah, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington. "And interestingly, very different people are starting to say the same thing."

Shortly before becoming pope, for example, Joseph Ratzinger teamed up with Marcello Pera, an agnostic and recent president of the Italian senate, to confront Europe's identity crisis in a book titled, "Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam."

"I think what Marcello is trying to do is define a moral vocabulary on which both believers and nonbelievers can agree, a moral vocabulary based on a common understanding of the inherent, unalienable dignity of the human person," says George Weigel, a Catholic theologian and author of "The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God." "And we'll see if that works. I think there ought to be some serious interest."

But Mr. Pera and now-Pope Benedict XVI are operating in an arena where Europe's values gap appears to be widening.

On one side are countries like the Netherlands, which has mandated that "Christ" be spelled with a lowercase "c," and Spain, where birth certificates now provide for same-sex parents to be referred to as "Progenitor A" and "Progenitor B."

At the opposite pole are figures such as Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his twin, Prime Minister Jaroslav Kaczynski. Elected on vows to root out corruption, they are causing a stir across Europe with other aspects of their push for politics based on traditional, religious values, such as opposition to homosexuality.

"It's a good thing to campaign on ... but of course it doesn't go down well with older EU members in Western Europe, as it's a challenge to the liberal revolution that began in the '60s," says Krzysztof Bobinski, director of Unia I Polska, a pro-Europe advocacy and research organization in Warsaw, Poland.

Just last week, Poland's prime minister, on a trip to Brussels, tried to allay concerns of his EU colleagues that his country was homophobic and xenophobic.

Curbing nationalism after World War II

In the wake of World War II, Western Europe sought not only to rein in nationalism - a prime motive for creating a "European Union" - but also began to probe the root causes of discrimination, says Robin Shepherd, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund office in Bratislava, Slovakia.

During this period of discussion and self-criticism, Mr. Shepherd says, an array of social issues were brought to the table, including women's rights, minority rights, gay rights, abortion, and the death penalty. The wrenching debates ultimately led to greater tolerance and more liberal legislation, says Shepherd.

In Eastern Europe, however, the Communist Party's ruthlessness in cracking down on dissent prevented such discussions from taking place. …