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The EU: Like Building a Cathedral

Will the “cathedral” – aka the EU – ever be completed? Is it worth the effort? Or might it fall down and bankrupt its builders?

April 25, 2017

Credit: Marc Bruxelle -

After the first round of the French presidential elections, Europe seems to have dodged a bullet. Emmanuel Macron, the likely new President, is a big fan of Europe.

While he has his work cut out for him convincing the French people of the reforms he envisages, the EU is not going to crumble because of France. It is even conceivable that it will be invigorated.

But for all the often-heard, usually rather facile talk by politicians about creating a new Europe – fairer, more dynamic etc. — many people rightfully wonder what the structure of the new…

Europe will look like?

A dose of realism and proper perspective is in order. As simultaneously perplexing and frustrating as the European edifice can be, it is also an impressive achievement, especially when compared on the world stage.

Over the last six decades, the project has evolved, not according to a clear blueprint, but in a general direction.

And whenever consensus was hard to come by, the project has nevertheless progressed with a considerable measure of improvisation.

Cathedral building: The best metaphor

The future will see more of the same. Somehow, the European Union is like one of those great cathedrals of medieval Europe. Those who laid the foundation stones knew they would not live to see the completed building.

They also knew that the design would evolve as the generations went by. Some of those cathedrals collapsed because they were too ambitious. Some remained incomplete for hundreds of years (famously, Cologne). Others were never completed at all.

Many of them came close to bankrupting the cities which undertook their construction. Yet, many also became structures which were perhaps beyond even the boldest imaginations of those who laid their first foundations.

Projects that take generations

This reminds us of something about the European project. The Europeans have already been at it for 60 years or so. It has evolved over the years and there still is a long way to go. We will not see its completion or its final form in our lifetimes.

Will this work? Will Europe be able to become a flexible, cohesive and strong economic and cultural competitor and counterpart to those new Asian giants? The answer is not clear. Might the cathedral – aka the EU — fall down? Might it bankrupt its builders?

The broad answer of the German establishment is clearly that building this cathedral is worth the risk and the struggle.

The question now is: How far does this stance continue to be supported more widely by a German public which has been deeply unsettled by the upheavals caused by the refugee crisis?

One thing is clear: Europe needs Germany in its unavoidable role on the bridge – and needs it more than ever. This also includes building France’s new President a useful bridge.

To see through his structural reforms at home, he will need a German partner that is prepared to make some corresponding economic moves, too, that Berlin has resisted so far.

EU: More than just a governance structure

If that happens, the entire world stands to benefit. For in the last analysis, Europe is more than just a governance structure.

And it is certainly more than its continuing preoccupation with the travails of the eurozone, its loss of geopolitical influence and the ambivalence of the British.

Europe‘s history is both sublime and tragic, and endlessly moving. It is a continent which is a treasure trove of beauty – for all the destruction it has seen.

From its ice age art to its neolithic pottery, through classical Greece and Rome, through the Renaissance to the Romantics and down to the present day: the fruits of European spiritual, philosophical and aesthetic exploration are the richest, most diverse, most vibrant and most searching anywhere on the planet.

All of that has resulted in an impressively broad-based commitment to rationalism, democracy, individual rights and responsibilities, the rule of law, economic effectiveness and fairness, social compassion and care for our planet.

That is a combination of priorities very much worth fighting for.

Editor’s Note: Updated from October 25, 2016 version.


The EU is like one of the great cathedrals of medieval Europe. Those who laid the foundation knew they wouldn’t live to see it completed.

Will Europe be able to become a strong competitor to those new Asian giants? The answer is not clear.

Europe needs Germany in its unavoidable role on the bridge – and needs it more than ever.