Europe and Ethics

Keynote speach on the conference Morality and Politics, Vienna, 7 December 2002

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Perhaps a philosopher or professional moralist is better placed than a politician to analyse the relationship between politics and ethics, between the exercise of power — in the public sphere primarily but not exclusively — and moral issues.

But I too am keen to contribute some thoughts on the subject.

I have often observed that the everyday practice of politics is strewn with so many surprises and dangers, so many good intentions never put into effect and so many wise decisions translated into poor, unfortunate or downright bad measures, that I must conclude we need to re-establish a link between ethics and politics.

Intellectual expediency and indifference have already done too much damage to politics for us to avoid the task.

This is why, in my personal opinion, we should never, for whatever reason, try to divorce the exercise of political power from the moral dimension.

This means we need to maintain politics in a “fuzzy” relationship with ethics that elevates them both. The two may be quite separate, but they sustain each other.

Europe has a tragic memory of the wrong relationship between morality and politics. We can no longer look to politics to teach and impose moral behaviour. Terrible crimes were committed over the last century in the name of values and morality. But nor can we allow politics to be devalued, through scepticism, pragmatism or nihilism. For that would signal indifference to the future of mankind and of organised society.

To agree to look again at the link between politics and morality is an act of faith in human beings and in their capacity to play a positive role in history. And it means that political action and political thought do concern our human destiny.

Allow me to touch on a few issues facing the Union that best illustrate its political and moral dimension, a dimension that we should recognise and strengthen.

I am thinking of the relations between science and society, the dialogue between cultures, relations with the developing world, the role of the market, our role internationally and Europe’s spiritual and religious dimension.

These are issues that will require us to come up with new ideas, new solutions and new rules if we are to fulfil the hopes and expectations aroused by the European project and ensure that it is vested with ideas and a soul.

There is no place in the Europe we are building for politics practised as a thing apart or for “reasons of State” and which can end up becoming an end in itself.

The ideas behind Europe, its insistence on principles and values as the basis for political action — our belief in and practice of human rights for instance — are perhaps the best example of the balance we Europeans try to strike.

Ethics cannot be left out of the political equation, so we must find the right relationship between the two.

As André Malraux said, morality cannot be the basis for political action but neither can it be left out.

The relationship between science and society is an example of how we conceive of relations between politics and morality. The moral dimension of the political choices concerning scientific research and its applications has become a topical and controversial area as a result of new scientific breakthroughs over the last ten years.

We want to integrate the ethical dimension into our work and thinking. Although — indeed perhaps because — the Union does not have any power to regulate ethical matters directly, it can play an important role in signposting the way forward, establishing the parameters of debate and promoting dialogue.

Europe is the expression of diverse traditions and cultures. We might say that managing diversity is in our genes. It is thus crucial to encourage dialogue between scientific communities, philosophers, cultures and religions so that we can exchange opinions and ideas on fundamental issues such as the ethical implications of new technologies for human dignity and for future generations.

Predicaments concerning the relationship between political action and cultural and religious principles and values are not confined to science.

The dialogue between different religions and cultures is no longer simply a matter of foreign policy, it is of fundamental concern within our own societies.

As I remarked recently when speaking of relations between Europe and the Mediterranean, the border between the northern and southern Mediterranean worlds is no longer on the other side of the sea.

Communities originating in the South, whether in remote times or recently, are developing new forms of living together within our societies, within our countries.

These new community relations have nothing to do with questions of security or repression of delinquent behaviour; I am talking about potential new social relations.

This is where we must focus our attention.

And to do this I have set up a high-level advisory group that will start work in January with the job of analysing the dialogue between cultures in Europe and the Mediterranean and proposing practical ways of promoting it.

Our relations with the Mediterranean could, in my view, be a valuable testing ground for solutions that are applicable on a wider scale.

The heart of the European project is to establish and promote peace, tolerance and coexistence.

A united Europe has made a substantial contribution to ending the destructive conflicts and wars waged by neighbouring countries for the illusory conquest of border areas, conflicts that led to much loss of human life and fuelled feelings of antagonism between different peoples.

The ethical principles that inspired our Union, which are set out in our founding treaties, have won the hearts and minds of European countries that are not yet members. They now want to join us and slowly but surely adopt our values and objectives.

To speak of peace is almost a cliché — but only to those who do not suffer its lack. It is the highest expression of the human condition.

Our united Europe enjoys such peace and is striving to ensure that it lasts. Peace is not merely the absence of war. It is the result of a unwavering effort to develop common understanding, cooperation and solidarity.

The world — and Europe — is in need of peace and understanding. This is something we never tire of proclaiming.

We need understanding in our relations with all. With the strong — without envy, resentment or hostility. And with the weak, especially the poor.

It is easy to pay lip service to the fact that peace is a fragile and ephemeral conquest as we see people in whole regions and continents of the planet living in misery and subjection, some practically enslaved.

We readily concede it.

It is harder to really admit the extent to which this situation offends our very selves.

We have tried to find some remedies for this explosive situation; there have been some notable initiatives and good intentions. We have dressed a few wounds.

But we must rethink our role and our duty as rich people in a world that is suffering and dying, in part through our fault.

We cannot delude ourselves that we can detach ourselves and survive in a world as it now is, dehumanised by poverty.

This was the message — infused with rage and impotence — that I received at the Johannesburg Summit.

At the Summit I understood that we, the rich of this world, will only start to do our duty when we replace our so-called aid policy with a more ethical relationship built on equality between peoples.

Such a transfiguration is all the more difficult at times when our own societies, and especially specific groups of workers, are hit by crisis and decline.

We must find an answer to what is the fundamental issue, both in European societies and in North-South relations, namely dissatisfaction with the level of social justice and social participation.

After the fall of the Berlin wall, the defence and promotion of human rights — the fight against totalitarianism in all its forms — and espousal of market principles became the common ground that united various schools of thought.

But the issues we have to deal with today call for new answers.

Above all, there is a great need for fresh thinking about our relationship with the market.

We have put behind us the era of dogma.

The nineties and the prevailing certainties of that time are over.

The supposed primacy of business and the market over politics has collapsed.

People have now understood that we are not living in “the best of all possible worlds” and that there is no such thing as infinite growth.

The Enron and WorldCom affairs show that we need to rethink the economy and its relationship with society. But it is not the market as such but a fundamentalist conception of the market that has helped break the link between real wealth and financial resources, that has identified the market solely with finance and completely obscured its social function.

People are demanding higher standards of behaviour from public authorities and business.

The EU is the right framework for such a debate on the market, the welfare State, population trends, immigration and sustainable development.

At the founding of the European Community the market was not seen as some absolute good but as a space to promote freedom, social interaction, awareness and respect for others.

The very idea of seeing capitalism and profit maximisation as one and the same thing is now unacceptable.

Today it is clear — though I don’t know that things were that different in the past — that capitalism has to based on cooperation and mutual trust.

This means that it needs moral codes that instil coordination and cooperation in labour relations, in economic relations and in trade.

Institutions, including the European institutions, must take this on board.

Ethical standards and codes of behaviour are not re-established by generic moral appeals but through a new type of regulation. It is simply not true — as recent scandals have shown — that a completely deregulated, “amoral” market without any standards is a more efficient one. Trust in the market, which is also the trust placed in it by society, also depends on shared rules and principles.

We must pay particular attention to the debate on globalisation because it translates a widespread feeling of unease and an urgent demand for new answers to the new challenges and problems facing us.

We have to look beyond labels and flags. These peaceful protests come from interests and groups that are far more widespread and diverse than we are given to believe. Of course, we may — indeed we should — disagree with some of the analyses and some of the solutions put forward.

But it would be unforgivable to turn our backs on such strongly felt demands. We would not be doing our job as political leaders, which is to listen to the cries of distress from our societies — sometimes desperate cries — and mediate between different positions.

Europe’s approach to international relations is taking shape. We have chosen the path of multilateralism, not unilateralism. We want to use the force of ideas and persuasion, not coercion. We have moved a long way from the “reasons of State” and from the realpolitik that we ourselves invented.

Our concept of power is the power of rules. We reject the idea of going it alone or the absence of any framework of reference. Our insistence on the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court, on the pivotal role of the United Nations, and on the need to strengthen and democratise global governance flows from this approach.

The Everything But Arms initiative is a first important step. It must be followed by others.

Europe can only play a leading role on the world stage if it is able to offer a robust political proposal for a more effective and democratic international “architecture”.

At a time when we are reflecting on the future of Europe, we cannot overlook its spiritual, religious and ethical dimensions.

As I said earlier, Europe also needs ideas and a soul.

This is a cue for me to announce that, with the help of Professor Michalski, I have decided to bring together a number of European thinkers and politicians to discuss these issues in an ad hoc working party.

A new Europe built on the fundamental values that have fashioned it in the course of its history, which also have their roots in the Christian tradition, offers benefits for everyone, whatever their philosophical or spiritual tradition.

As we lay the foundations of a new, enlarged European Union it would not be right to marginalise the religions and movements that have contributed, and are still contributing, so much to the culture and humanism that Europe is rightly so proud of.

That does not mean failing to recognise or denigrating the need for a secular State and a secular Europe. It simply means taking account of Europe’s roots, which lie in religious and spiritual movements as well as in humanism, the enlightenment and the Greek and Roman heritage.

Recognising these roots does not signal rejection or exclusion of others. Europe’s true strength has always lain in mingling and coalescing different influences and cultures. How can we put Christianity, Judaism and Islam in a separate box in a Europe that proclaims its pluralism and tolerance?

The separation of the public and religious spheres does not mean denying or ignoring religions and those who identify with them.

I believe that an open, healthy debate between the Community institutions and religious confessions is now both possible and necessary. In fact the Commission’s White Paper on European governance mentions the need for the participation of religious groups and consultations with them. Next week we shall be following this up with a paper on new arrangements for consultations.

Today I have tried to share with you some thoughts on issues of tremendous importance that are not easily dealt with in such a short time.

But I did wish to tell you how close to my heart this debate is. On it depends our capacity to devise a new political project for Europe, and Europe’s capacity to contribute towards a more just model of global governance.

Thank you.


Tr@nsit online, Nr. 25/2003
Copyright © 2003 by the author & Transit – Europäische Revue.
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    Director, Institute for Advanced Study, Warsaw; Founder, "Krytyka Polityczna" movement
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  • Sara Silverstein

    Ph.D. Candidate in Modern European and International History, Yale University
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  • Aleksander Smolar

    Political Science, Paris
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  • Timothy Snyder

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Bird White Housum Professor of History, Yale University
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  • George Soros

    George Soros is a pioneer of the hedge-fund industry, investor and philanthropist, he is the author of many books, including Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States: Essays (2012), The Soros Lectures: At the Central European University (2010), The Crash of 2008 and What it Means: The New Paradigm for Finance Markets (2009).   …
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  • Robert Spaemann

    Robert Spaemann ist Professor em. für Philosophie an der Universität München.   Print

  • Pawel Spiewak

    Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Philosophy, Warsaw University
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  • Wilfried Stadler

    Wilfried Stadler ist Unternehmensberater, Wirtschaftspublizist und Honorarprofessor an der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. Bis 2009 war er Vorstandsvorsitzender einer österreichischen Spezialbank für Unternehmensfinanzierung.   Print

  • Rudolf Stamm

    Rudolf Stamm war von 1975 bis 1988 Korrespondent der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung für Osteuropa und Österreich, anschließend bis 1999 für Italien, dann bis zu seiner Pensionierung 2002 für die USA mit Sitz in Washington D.C. Er starb 2010 in der Schweiz. 1985 erscheinen seine NZZ-Reportagen aus Osteuropa in dem Band Alltag und Tradition in Osteuropa. …
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  • Paul Starr

    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue / Ukraine in European Dialogue
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