Straßburg, Tagung des Europarates

If there is a European question it is this: how does a society come into existence and how is it maintained? This question has been articulated at key moments in European history. It was asked by the great Roman orator Cicero, who wrote during the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire, and it was echoed by Augustine of Hippo as the Roman world transitioned to Christianity. Augustine and Cicero had asked:

How any society had come into existence in the first place…how could a society, once formed, maintain that sense of the public, common good that had first brought it together? How did the all too precarious miracle of human unity around a common goal begin? How was it to be maintained? What would it finally achieve – and when? 1

Such questions seem particularly relevant today, as Britain threatens to leave the European Union, which is the latest chapter in the long story of European society. The painful deliberations over Britain’s EU referendum prompt a questioning of Europe’s vision of society, and of Britain’s.

I am writing this not only because I was struck by the similarities between questions raised by the civilizational transformations of Europe in late Antiquity and today’s debates over the meaning, value, and future of the European Union, but also to make a historical intervention regarding the framing of these debates.

Economic analysis has dominated the media coverage of the referendum and many of the discussions have concerned whether individual Brits will be better off financially with a remain vote or a leave vote. The impact on individuals, the housing market, pensions and business have all been evaluated – the question reduced to a statistic.

These questions are not insignificant – the European Union has had an economic project. People’s livelihoods matter. Poverty is real, and felt by many in Britain, Europe, and in all parts of the world. However, poverty has many forms, and much of the quantitative analysis of the value of the European Union for individual purses has suffered from an impoverishment of perspective, history, and vision.

Poverty is not the problem of an individual but of a society. Peter Brown described how a society treats its poor, its ‘eminently forgettable persons’ as the ‘aesthetics of society’. 2 These ‘eminently forgettable persons’ take many forms, including those who have grown up within a society, as well as newcomers to it. The current ‘refugee crisis’ has brought many strangers in need to the shores of Europe, and many Brexit isolationists have suggested Britain should pull up its draw bridge and stop people from entering. 3 It has been argued that we are not witnessing a refugee crisis facing Europe, but a European crisis facing refugees.

This crisis of Europe has only been exacerbated by the Brexit debate, which has tried to calculate the value of the EU in monetary terms. But what is at stake for Europe, now as in the past, is the question of how society should be made and maintained. Britain and the EU should be discussing its vision of an ideal society, its common goals, and strategies for achieving them, rather than calculating net flows of capital and predicting markets.

These common goals include human rights and equality. Certain Conservatives think that the UK must leave the European convention on human rights. But, as pointed out by many commentators and observers, the convention, first drafted in 1950 by the Council of Europe, is a vital component of the history of Europe and the EU. It was part of the post-war European vision of society that aimed to promote peace and to prevent violations of human rights.

As we face today’s global challenges to peace and equality, it seems to me to be just as important to take up the European question of what makes society, and how it is maintained, which has reverberated throughout European history – the very same question that was taken up by the EU in the wake of humanitarian crisis within Europe.

The claim that the notion of society itself is a myth was articulated by famous Eurosceptic Margaret Thatcher, who said ‘there is no society, only individual men and women’. Thatcher was also committed to dismantling the welfare state and removing power from the unions which were established to protect workers’ rights. Brexit now similarly threatens the improved workers’ rights safeguarded by the EU. 4 For all its problems, the EU’s interest in the problematic of the good society can be seen in the role it has played in the development of rights legislation.

The history of human rights is an example of a European intellectual project, an outcome of a shared European intellectual history which stretches back at least to the Middle Ages, where itinerant scholar crossing borders to study in different lands was not an unfamiliar sight. Europeans have invested in the institutions which have facilitated vibrant cross-cultural intellectual exchanges. 5 An important contemporary example is the European University Institute (EUI). My own work on the global history of poverty, which explores inequalities of justice as well as resources, has benefited from my participation in the interdisciplinary and international research environment of this institution which demonstrates the EU’s commitment to that important question of how a good society is created and maintained. This year’s Max Weber conference is focused on social equality, and its keynote lecture will address the debates on Britain and the EU.

This is why I am another historian for the EU, following in the path of scholars who have benefited from EU membership and the access it provides to international research collaborations, to continue to address the cross-cultural question of what makes a good society.

Julia McClure completed her PhD at the University of Sheffield and was a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. She is now a Lecturer at the University of Warwick and is currently building a Poverty Research Network. You can find her on Twitter @DrJuliaMcClure.

Image: Willy Brandt talks to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, 1968 [Wikicommons].


  1. As the renowned historian of late Antiquity Peter Brown summarises in Through The Eye of A Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton, 2012), p. 178.
  2. I have blogged about elsewhere, and you can read more in Peter Brown, ‘Remembering the Poor and the Aesthetic of Society’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 35, No. 3 (2005), pp. 513-522, p. 515.
  3. This crisis of humanitarian values abated slightly last year when an image of a dead Syrian boy went viral, temporarily prompting a more humane reception to refugees, but before long, this too was forgotten.
  4. The EU can also be a platform for solidarity; the film director Ken Loach recently issued a scathing attack of the EU, but noted that European countries had a common denominator in their consciousness of social justice.
  5. Of course, not only Europeans, but the subject here is Europe.
Tags : BrexitEU ReferendumHistory of Europehistory of the EUrefugee crisis
Julia McClure

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