Policy paper 285

To what extent are European values universal?

Quote this article :
Chopin, T. 2022. “To what extent are European values universal?“, Policy paper, Paris: Jacques Delors Institute, 16 December.


In recent years, the political values that form the basis of the European Union have been called into question. Within the EU, authoritarian and neo-nationalist far-right populist movements that are hostile to political liberalism are challenging these values. In a more recent trend, “European values” are also questioned to the left of the political spectrum amid post-colonial criticism of the Enlightenment which is purportedly the mask of Western cultural imperialism. Alongside this criticism, the universality of values resulting from the Enlightenment is challenged as a rejection of the Western and more specifically European pretention of claiming to be the origin of “democratic values” and asserting the “universal” nature of individual rights that follow on from this European intellectual and political movement. “European values” are criticised as imperialistic and were used as a universal “mask” designed to disguise plans for domination. Outside the EU, these values are also disputed against the backdrop of a rise in authoritarian, dictatorial and totalitarian regimes, particularly in China and Russia, which aim to reshape the world order by claiming that the values that underpin it are Western and not universal.
This very topical debate raises several questions. We must first define which “European values” are being considered and clarify what is meant by “universal”.

Does this mean that European values can be transposed everywhere as they are? Does it mean that these values originate from outside Europe? Considering the universal dimension of European values in these terms may lead to two very different questions that call for conflicting answers that are relatively simple to conclude. It is interesting to note that the topic of the universal dimension of values is sometimes conflated with the question of European identity. This association of ideas illustrates the intrinsic disquiet surrounding this issue. Debate on these issues has the disadvantage of structuring the discussion in highly polarized terms, that Myriam Revault d’Allonnes recently summed up in a very clear fashion: “Does the universal dimension of European values fall within an abstract universality, in principle, that some call “overhanging” because, starting with specific and assigned origins (a particular identity), it claims to standardise and align with its own model all that is different to it? This is the criticism consistently made of this type of universality by those who rightly see it as a disguised expression of economic, colonial and cultural hegemony. This ‘universality’ is actually the simple unilateral transplant of a singular form dominated by Western modernity. Yet this is precisely what is asserted in the call for a monolithic European identity, fuelled by Christian values and in search of an over-arching narrative”. In this respect, the difficulty we face today is to find a way forward that “leaves behind this binary approach where there is competition between a self-proclaimed overhanging universality and the criticism of a universality that is still limited to domination narratives”.

Entirely in line with this inquiry, the sole purpose of the following arguments is to attempt to contribute to this thorny debate. To achieve this, this paper will clarify what is understood by “European values” (1.), consider the question of their universality while attempting to avoid the pitfalls of the “civilisation” narrative (2.) and justify the need to acknowledge and assert the “heritage of the European Enlightenment”, a “local and plural heritage” (3.).