Whether it is heritage, culture or tradition, the notion of having something in common is an important part of the foundational narratives of European integration. It features heavily in the everyday rhetoric of the European Union and sometimes its use causes controversy: for instance, when the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen proposed that one of her new commissionaires should “protect our European way of life” , many felt that the expression was exclusionist and insulting, and others were puzzled by the concept itself. Despite the outcry, the commissioner in question still pledges to “promote our European way of life” and the question remains unanswered: is there a European way of life or a common European heritage that we all share?
Debating common heritage
Intertwined with the narrative of shared heritage is another narrative that reinforces or counters it, depending on how you look at it: the narrative of diversity. This narrative suggests that while European countries may have values in common, such as democracy, rule of law, and protecting human rights, they also have unique local traditions and experiences that shape what those values look like.
Post-doctoral researcher Zoë Jay first encountered the double narrative of common heritage and diversity while doing her PhD. It first seemed like background information in a thesis dealing with why European democracies comply with most of the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights but resist others. Yet, the narrative continues to fascinate Jay and has since led her to the other side of the globe, to the EuroStorie Centre of Excellence in Helsinki. At EuroStorie, Jay will be conducting research on how the European human rights system maintains common standards across Europe while allowing room for national diversity.
Despite the EU usually stressing unity, the concept of diversity is regularly used in different European contexts either as an element of said unity or as an argument against it.
According to Jay, the same narratives and the same dynamic can be found everywhere, from the EU to the Council of Europe, even at the Eurovision Song Contest. Whether it is Hungary pulling out of Eurovision in protest of the LGBTQ+ positivity of the light-hearted but deeply political song contest, or the UK challenging the European Court of Human Rights, the question of common heritage and what Europeans actually share or not is constantly debated and negotiated. The latter case especially could have severe implications for the future of Europe, and Jay explains why.
One court to rule them all
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR or ECtHR) is one of the supranational European institutions that was founded on the idea that Europeans share values that allow them to come together and comply to the same minimum standards of human rights protection. National views of the court’s status and importance, however, are more diverse than one might think.
When the member states of the Council of Europe challenge the rulings of the ECtHR, the tension between the ideas of unity and diversity tends to flare up. Jay explains that most European countries generally only challenge individual decisions, but some have a habit of challenging the court itself. One such country is the United Kingdom, which recently made headlines when passing a bill that would allow the UK to break international law. According to Jay, the UK’s recent actions are not a new occurrence, but part of a longer progression of the country challenging European legal institutions and the ECtHR in particular.
The reasons behind the UK’s attitudes towards supranational courts and especially the ECtHR are more complicated than just Brexit-induced nationalist fervour. The country has a long history of parliamentarism and being separate from continental Europe – no man is an island, but the United Kingdom certainly is.
According to Jay, the UK interprets the role of the ECtHR differently than many continental states, such as Germany, which sees the European legal system as an extension of its domestic system rather than as a foreign one. Concisely put, the UK sees the European legal and human rights system as a backup, not an essential component of its own legal system, and uses the concept of diversity to argue for their right to do things differently, in their own way.
But what does the UK’s attitude mean for European integration and institutions such as the ECtHR?
“Supranational European institutions are dependent on and legitimized by the idea of Europeans having something in common, such as respect for the rule of law, human rights and democracy”, Jay explains.
Even if the UK still respects the aforementioned principles, rejecting the idea of European common heritage might weaken the very institutions that protect them.
Glued together by an idea
The concept of ‘common heritage’ is mentioned in many of the important European treaties of the 20th century. For example, the statute of the Council of Europe from 1949 claims that the 10 founding countries were united by “[…] their devotion to the spiritual and moral values which are the common heritage of their peoples and the true source of individual freedom, political liberty and the rule of law, principles which form the basis of all genuine democracy.” At the same time, advocates of European integration also recognised the variations in Western European countries' democratic and legal traditions, and spoke about uniting Europe “in accordance with the genius of their diversity”.
But what ultimately is the "common heritage"? Is there such a thing?
“I think being diverse is the common heritage”, Jay reflects.
“After the war, there were specific reasons for European countries working together and developing that idea further. In the pre-war period there were only a few countries that had democratic regimes and didn’t actively repress human rights, but the idea and definition of human rights varied greatly country to country.”
According to Jay, these ambiguities do not mean that the idea of common heritage is necessarily false or harmful, but rather that it is only the surface of something much more complex than the idea of Europeans being a perfect community of people, who have everything in common and even share “a European way of life”. The idea of common heritage, however vague and difficult to define, keeps European institutions together.
Since the immediate post-WWII period, the support for the idea of common heritage has somewhat waned and so has the support for the institutions that are built on it. Whether it comes to the criticism of European courts or institutions being too powerful, Jay reminds us that it is important to be aware of what lies behind these arguments. In the same way that national identities are usually based on rather flimsy and emotional things, so is usually the support or the rejection of the idea of European common heritage.
When asked how to support and strengthen the European institutions such as the ECtHR, Council of Europe or the European Union, Jay says: “You can’t reform your way out of what is essentially a hearts-and-minds-kind of problem.”
In order to keep the idea of Europeans having something in common alive, fostering unity and reminding Europeans of the usefulness of cooperation is now more important than ever.
“You also need informal and non-institutional spaces where Europeans can come together and negotiate what national identity and being European mean”, Jay says.
Dr Zoë Jay is a post-doctoral researcher in subproject 1, Law and the Uses of the Past. She has a background in international relations and political science. Her research focuses on European politics, human rights, and the politics of international law, especially compliance with the European Court of Human Rights.