The EU is founded on common values. But what are European values? One definition is provided by the EU Treaty: “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.”.
Surveys show that these values are indeed important to many Europeans. However, can we really say these concepts are somehow uniquely European? Furthermore, studies show there are fundamental differences within Europe in how these values are interpreted and assigned importance. With so many different perceptions across the continent, can we really talk of “common European values”?
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Rogerio summarising what he considers to be European values, namely “democracy, human rights, solidarity, respect for the opinions of others, Christianity, family, equal rights and opportunities for men and women, and security.“
To get a response to Rogerio, we have put his comment to Despina Spanou, Head of Cabinet for Vice-President of the European Commission Margaritis Schinas, who has the portfolio “Promoting our European way of life”, which aims to “Protect our citizens and our values”. What are European values for Despina Spanou?
The portfolio “Promoting our European way of life” was created precisely with the idea of promoting our values, the values that distinguish Europe from the rest of the world because they are respected. (…) Security is also an important value in Europe. We know that every time a country is affected by a terrorist attack, we have an EU-wide response. So protecting our society, protecting our citizens, protecting our homes, our parks, our public life, is also part of European values.
Many people ask: “What is the issue of migration doing in the portfolio of the European way of life?” Well, migration is a reality. But migration is also there because a lot of the policy we have to make is not just about asylum policy. Our values apply here as well. A big value is that people who have fled wars and suffering have a right to find asylum in Europe, to find Europe as a place of refuge. But it is also about ensuring that those who have arrived here can enjoy these values in the same way and belong.
It is also about ensuring that everyone who is in the EU enjoys these values in the same way, whether it is democracy – participation in public life must be possible for everyone – whether it is education, education should be available to everyone, whether it is skills and employment, everyone should have access to a job, to qualifications, to acquiring skills, and so on.
And then, of course, we have a very important value that is not often mentioned, namely mobility. One of the most important values (…) is the movement across borders. And that is very important for students, look at the Erasmus programme, there are millions of people who have benefited from a life-changing event. That has a huge social impact. Of course we need labour mobility, not only because people are looking for a job somewhere else for a number of reasons. We also need it for the proper sharing of skills for emergency situations. Look at what happened with the medical staff. We had to mobilise medical staff between countries during the pandemic. That is also a very important value, the right to free movement.
Another very important value is solidarity. During the pandemic, we have seen more than ever that Europe is all about solidarity. Nowhere else in the world could you imagine 27 sovereign countries (…) coming together and tackling a pandemic together, coordinated and united. Look at what happened with the vaccines. Everyone agreed (…) that we will all get the right share of access for the population. No one should have an edge, no one should have more population coverage than the others. We have to be fair and equitable.
It is very important to talk about values in a much broader way than the typical way, and I see Rogerio talking about Christianity. Of course, respect for Christianity is a very important value, but another very important value is inter-religious dialogue, protecting the culture and religion of everyone who lives in Europe. We do not discriminate on the basis of religion, just as we do not discriminate in the EU for any other reason. So you have in the Vice-President’s portfolio for the movement of “promoting our European way of life” also inter-religious dialogue and (…) the fight against anti-Semitism. Because another very important value of Europe is not to forget our history, not to forget our mistakes and to make sure that they are not repeated and that their lasting effects are abolished and eliminated.
For another perspective, we also put Rogerio’s comment to Dr Inge Sieben, Associate Professor at Tilburg University. Together with the European Values Study team, she is conducting a large-scale, international research programme on the values most important to Europeans. What does she think European values are?
Thank you for this comment, Rogerio, it is a very interesting and important question. I’m doing research on European values in a large-scale survey project where we asked people from all over Europe what they think is important in life. And that is actually the definition of values: what people think is important. The things Rogerio mentioned are indeed very important for many citizens in Europe – you can also count freedom and justice among them. But there are more aspects to the issues, and if you ask deeper what people mean by them, they all come up with different ideas. For example, equality means something different to everyone.
So, in general, you are right about these abstract concepts, but when you go deeper, you find many differences, and I think that is what Europe is: it is united in diversity. We have values that are common to us, but there are also many differences between people and what they really think about it.
This leads us nicely to the point made by Ivan, who sent us in a comment arguing that there is no such thing as “European values”, but rather “there are at least 50 national value systems within Europe.” Is he right?
We put Ivan’s comment to Laura Sullivan, Executive Director of We Move Europe, a citizens’ movement aiming to strengthen the capacity of citizens to change Europe for the benefit of society, future generations and the planet. How would she respond to Ivan?
This is a really interesting question, which brings me to a campaign that We Move Europe worked on when the new commissioners came into office. One of them was Commissioner Schinas, the Commissioner for the portfolio “Promoting our European Way of Life”. We ran a campaign to question this name because we question the idea that there is a “European way of life”. Because the term has connotations, especially in the context of migration, that are really questionable in the sense of a kind of superiority complex. Are there different kinds of values in Europe? I’m sure there are. But I would simply say that when it comes to the European Union, what matters most is whether the values are actually lived.
So when it comes to the values that are mentioned, like justice, solidarity, democracy, equality and so on – are they practiced when you look at the European Union at large? This week Ylva Johansson, the Commissioner for Migration, landed in the Moria camp. She landed by military helicopter and got into a car surrounded by armed guards. What we read from reports on the ground is that she did not leave the car and did not speak to anyone there. So if solidarity is one of the values, how can the Commissioner for Migration not get out of the car?
And that’s exactly how she went to the Greek-Turkish border a year ago with Ursula von der Leyen. When Erdogan basically told the people, “Come on, you can cross the border”, they were then met with all kinds of violence. Again, the two top politicians of our institutions did not land with their helicopter to talk to the people fleeing, they just talked to the Greek authorities and called Greece a “shield for Europe”, which has all kinds of connotations, and that really brings out an almost warlike language. So if there is no solidarity in the narrative that is communicated by our leaders, and if there is no solidarity in practice, is it really there in practice? So for me, the most important question is not whether we have the values in theory, but whether they are practised.
We also put Ivan’s comment to Dr Inge Sieben. What does she think? Are there only national values, and no European values?
Well, he’s right, but he’s also wrong. So again a good question, because to really determine all these aspects as European values is kind of difficult. Because many people in the world appreciate these values. So it might not be specific to Europe, but the values of human rights are appreciated by many people. So in a sense it is difficult to say whether there are European values or not. But I don’t agree that there are 50 or more national values, because there is the same problem with national values: many people may think the same in one country, but still there are many differences. And sometimes two countries can be very similar. So I would say that European values are a better definition than national values.
But still, it is important to know that as researchers we find that there are many differences between people, even within a country. In fact, the differences between groups of people are greater than the differences between regions or countries. And of course it is true that context matters. Where you live or where you were born matters, but individual characteristics, such as the family you grew up in, also matter.
Finally, Marion left a comment arguing there is a contradiction between the values the EU professes publicly and the Union’s actual behaviour, especially when it comes to the refugee crisis. She says: “There’s lots of talk about having to defend our values. But where are those values when it comes to our fellow human beings at the EU’s external borders?”
We have put Marion’s comment to Despina Spanou, who coordinates EU Commissioner Schinas’ Cabinet on “Promoting our European Way of Life”, which is responsible for the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. How would she respond to Marion’s question?
I understand what she means when she says she is ashamed. It is true that we can no longer accept not having a European Union asylum and migration policy. We have failed. With the proposal we have made on the new migration pact, we hope that we will finally get there. And I think all the parameters are there. We need a European approach, we can no longer have some member states that are more generous than others, some that are more prepared than others, some that are more negative than others. We need a European approach. We need a proportionate approach to asylum seekers versus those who are not accepted.
We also need to protect our borders, we also need a very balanced approach to everything. But I think it is indeed very important that we agree on a uniform asylum procedure in Europe. At the same time, with the new migration pact, we have also tried to do something for the rest of the world by addressing the sources from which these migration flows come. So we have stepped up our work on the external aspects of migration, working with the countries where the migrants come from to try to promote peace and opportunity in those countries. But also to make sure that we have a balanced flow of migration from those parts of the world where it is necessary that they lead to people who are eligible to apply for asylum in Europe versus those who need to be sent back or resettled. So that is a very, very important aspect of our current work on migration – to address the source of the problem, also to help people while they are still over there in their countries looking for a better future.
Last but not least, how would Laura Sullivan, Executive Director of We Move Europe, respond to Marion’s point?
I would say: Marion, do you want a job? Because that’s exactly how we feel at We Move Europe. Since 2013, we have been like the proverbial “slow-boiled frogs” in Europe. What do I mean by that? We have been slow cooked in the sense of a narrative that started around 2013 when the far right in Europe compared people on the move to criminals, to bad people who either wanted to steal our jobs or were very lazy (they couldn’t decide which). And since then, unfortunately, our EU leaders have not adopted such directly toxic language, but have almost turned the language and narrative into something extremely robotic.
Let me give you an example. If you read any of the texts around migration, you will see the words “flows” or “illegals” much more often than “people” or “folk”. We reduce people to facts and figures and “flows” and “illegals” rather than people who have rights. Basically, I would say that as a pro-European and as a director of We Move Europe, I am concerned and ashamed of the path the European Union is on. It can be made good, but we need to start making amends pretty quickly.
What are European values? What are European values for you? Are there European values at all or only national values? And does the EU live up to its values? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!