Rethinking Europe

The European Union: 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?

Credit: Thomas Quine


  • 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.
  • Europeans have worked on the European project for 60 years or so. We will not see its completion in our lifetimes.
  • How flexible can Europe be? Could the cathedral – aka the EU -- fall? Could it bankrupt its builders?

Many people wonder what the structure of the new Europe will look like? Over the last six decades, the project has evolved, not according to a clear blueprint but in a general direction.

There has not always been complete consensus on this direction, nevertheless, the project has shaped up 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.

How flexible can Europe be?

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 German role

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.

EU: More than just a governance structure

And indeed, the world needs this too. For in the last analysis, Europe is more than just a governance structure. And it is certainly more than its current preoccupation with the travails of the eurozone, its loss of geopolitical influence and the ambivalence of the British.

Europe is also the history of how we got to being a prosperous union of peoples – a history which is both sublime and tragic, and endlessly moving. It is also a continent which is a treasure trove of beauty – for all the destruction it has seen.

A vibrant heritage

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.

As a result, Europe does have core values which have been hard won through history. These common values are the heritage of a tradition which has been shaped by such towering figures as Galileo, Erasmus, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Darwin – and of course many others.

Out of their different perspectives and out of the many and painful sins we Europeans have committed over the generations, has emerged something profoundly important for the whole world of the 21st century.

And that is a 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.

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About Stephen Green

Former Minister for Trade and Investment in the United Kingdom.

Responses to “The European Union: Like Building a Cathedral!”

Archived Comments.

  1. On October 25, 2016 at 7:02 am magda brown responded with... #

    We will never get to start , let alone to finish- our cathedral ( i like the metaphor) unless we take seriously implementing a common school curricula. Nothing major, but quite difficult apparently. Just compulsory studying European History – and not that of each particular state- and two foreign languages from nursery ( our own and the other being the one of our chosen neighbours. English can come third and introduced later) Only that will help to make us aware of our common European identity and get us started to stand up to our responsibilities as Europeans in the modern and future world.

  2. On October 25, 2016 at 1:16 pm Henk Crop responded with... #

    The EU was recently involved in a series of events, like wars in the Balkan, Lybia and Ukraine, a Refugee crises, an Euro crises and a Brexit. The way the EU has operated has not contributed to the confidence the citizen have in the EU.
    Therefore there is ample reason for a moment of reflection. Why not learn from history ? Perhaps it is better to set a goal and priorities for the coming 10 and 25 years, instead of drifting along the endless and misty path of the ever closer Union. One issue where the EU dramatically fails is its open door policy. People in Africa and the Middle East collect their family savings and risk their lives to come to the EU because they are let to believe that they will get a better live here. Most often they and up on welfare in a ghetto. People are of course responsible for their own decisions. But who is creating and mainaining this false and seducing image? Then you also have to consider that in Africa alone the population will increase by 700 million over the next 35 years. Where are the realistic EU plans ?

  3. On October 25, 2016 at 1:30 pm Henk Crop responded with... #

    Do not be too timid. English should be the second language, as it is used to varying degrees in almost anyhere in the world. ( I am not a native speaker).
    Also history is good iedea.

  4. On October 25, 2016 at 3:51 pm judith responded with... #

    Nice allegory. But until they get rid of the megalomaniac architect that is Junckers it is likely to suffer the fate of Beauvais cathedral.

  5. On October 25, 2016 at 5:20 pm magda brown responded with... #

    “Should” may not be so realistic. There is too much ambiguity in English to be taken as the “only” way forward for global “european” communication. We have to keep our variances to keep our unity. We are choosing the “institutional” path too rigidly and too hastily. That’s why the need to a closer understanding of our history as “European”.

  6. On October 25, 2016 at 5:22 pm magda brown responded with... #

    A look at La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona might be a more hopeful example