The debate did not only divide Europe geographically and politically, it also pointed to a glaring aspiration. For religion had not only retreated in Western Europe. In its wake there arose a desire to demonstrate that in the twenty-first century Europe had a self-supporting structure of rights, laws and institutions which could exist even without the source that had arguably given them life.
Like Kant’s dove we wondered whether we wouldn’t be able to fly faster if we lived ‘in free air’ without the bother of the wind keeping us aloft. Much rested on the success of this dream. In the place of religion came the ever-inflating language of ‘human rights’ (itself a concept of Christian origin). We left unresolved the question of whether or not our acquired rights were reliant on beliefs that the continent had ceased to hold or whether they existed of their own accord. This was, at the very least, an extremely big question to have left unresolved while vast new populations were being expected to ‘integrate’.
An equally significant question erupted at the same time around the position and purpose of the nation state. From the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 up to the late twentieth century the nation state in Europe had generally been regarded not only as the best guarantor of constitutional order and liberal rights but the ultimate guarantor of peace. Yet this certainty also eroded. Central European figures like Chancellor Kohl of Germany in 1996 insisted that ‘The nation state … cannot solve the great problems of the twenty-first century.’
Disintegration of the nation states of Europe into one large integrated political union was so important, Kohl insisted, that it was in fact ‘a question of war and peace in the twenty-first century’. Others disagreed, and twenty years later just over half of the British people demonstrated at the ballot box that they were unpersuaded by Kohl’s argument. But once again, whatever one’s views on the matter, this was a huge question to leave unresolved at a time of vast population change. …