Toward the European Elections

Free Articles

21 April 2019

The upcoming elections to the European Parliament are a good opportunity to reflect on Europe. Times change rapidly and the process of European integration no longer has the allure it had in former times. One member country wants to leave the Union.

This is a clear sign of failure, a lack of sincere and profound dialogue. An observant reader will note that I sometimes use the term “Europe” and other times “European Union.” The two concepts must not of course be confused, but in this sphere most of the observations made concerning the countries of the European Union are equally valid for all the countries of wider Europe.

These reflections are also to be understood as a contribution to Article 17 of the Treaty of the European Union, which opens a dialogue between religions and the institutions of the European Union.

Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich, SJ

The process of integration

From October 27 to 29, 2017, the Holy See and the Commission of the Episcopal Conferences of the European Community (COMECE) organized a Conference in the Vatican on “(Re)thinking Europe” to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome and thus recognize its importance in the history of constructing Europe.

Let us also recall two other fundamental moments. On May 9, 1950, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman proposed that France and Germany bring their steel and coal production under one shared High Authority. At the same time, Schuman invited other European countries to participate in this common project.

The result was the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), based in Luxembourg, which included Italy and the Benelux countries in addition to France and Germany. This was one attempt among others to make common policies in Europe. It was successful because it was a peace project regarding industrial policies necessary to wage war.

The Schuman plan was the answer to a major problem: the mining basin of Lorraine and Luxembourg could be exploited profitably only by using Saar coal. After 1870 this had no longer been a problem: Lorraine was German and Luxembourg was economically tied to the Reich. In 1918 Lorraine returned to France, and Luxembourg was in economic and monetary union with Belgium. Saar and its coal remained German; hence the attempt to annex that territory to France. In 1945 the situation was similar, because Saar was about to opt for Germany. These economic tensions could have led to a third war.

Schuman, born in Luxembourg to a Lorraine father and a Luxembourg mother, understood this problem well. According to his plan, economic collaboration and transfer of part of the sovereignty would have been preferable to an economic clash, which as history taught could well have led to a new armed conflict. By sharing the coal and the steel, war between the six ECSC countries became impossible.

Today we are again experiencing a period of economic strife. By its very existence, the European Union reminds the great powers that a policy of non-opposition, of collaboration and peace is possible. A policy of balancing powers is feasible only if there is stability; therefore, it is actually possible only by making adaptations.

The European Union has followed Schuman’s example. Europe is committed to multilateralism; it works as a soft power for international agreements. European integration is itself a continuous game of agreements. Europe has become a factor of peace in world politics.

But this process of European integration initiated by Schuman had a weak point: it was only the integration of western Europe, the U.S. ally. For many citizens of member countries, unfortunately, Europe was only the west: the countries of central and eastern Europe were perceived as an unknown or simply forgotten world.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and of the Iron Curtain revealed to the citizens of member countries that there was another Europe now free from the Soviet yoke. At last, on May 1, 2004, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Hungary (in addition to Malta and Cyprus) became member countries of the European Union, followed, on January 1, 2007, by Bulgaria and Romania.

It took some time for these countries to have the economic capacity for integration with its political objective: to give stability to these countries, to link them in a lasting way to the western bloc. Their experience was of return to a free Europe, and the Union merited the adjective “European” for the first time.

This enlargement, unfortunately, did not take into account the histories and mentalities of the peoples. The economic component was dominant, and there was no room for a dialogue of mentalities. Thus, many inhabitants of these countries feel they participated in an integration into western Europe and are not part of a truly pan-European integration.

Some examples illustrate this thesis: Western Europe has gradually become accustomed to migration from the Muslim world: Turks to Germany, ex-Maghreb to France. In central Europe, on the other hand, in the collective cultural memory, the Turks were the invaders, a threat to freedom and independence. There was no real dialogue between these positions.

Another debate that has not taken place is the role of peoples in the construction of Europe. The countries of central Europe shared the German concept of “people” rather than the French concept of “nation,” as guarantor for liberty and independence: its connotations were positive.

The 2004 enlargement was a missed opportunity for European integration. A dialogue between different narratives did not occur. Foolishly, the countries of western Europe have interpreted the collapse of the Soviet empire as a triumph of capitalism and liberalism. Countries in western and central Europe need to engage in dialogue between peoples if the European Union wants to remain a guarantor of stability and peace in the world.

The European Union remains a project for peace. The process of European integration has not abandoned these promises. Economic integration in the common market has not only been an engine of economic development, it has also contributed to the well-being of Europe’s citizens.

Below we offer some brief reflections on a few key points for the near future.[1]

Fears

The beginning of the 21st century will be important for the history of mentalities. There are many fears in today’s Europe. Mixed together and fostered by the rise of populism, these may lead to a destabilization of our democracies and a weakening of the European Union.

Today the sense of well-being seems to have disappeared and given rise to many fears, which claim a European “Christian” identity, even though they consist of political desires in clear contrast with the Gospel.

It is strange to note that fears increase at the same time as Sunday worship is declining. A person turned toward God, a person who draws meaning and happiness from a relationship with God-totally-Other, and whose encounter with Christ leads to a universal brotherhood, has given way to someone who takes meaning from consumerism, someone emptied of all content, isolated and fearful of losing the future.

Anguish is defined as fear without a concrete object. This anguish, analyzed by the philosophy of Sartre, destabilizes the human person; in fact, a multiplicity of nebulous fears leads to this anxiety. Some populist policies take advantage of it and give a name to the objects of these fears, which thereby exist and transform into aggression. Enemies are presented to allay our fears: migrants, Islam, Jews, etc. What an ignoble game is played on our anxieties!

Policies must take fears into account. These often glorify the past and refrain dynamics oriented toward the future. If sound policies do not take into account the fears of European citizens, they will fall prey to populisms that emphasize such fears to present themselves as saviors.

Order

Order is essential for the stability of the human person. Even those who lead a disordered life need an orderly environment to live their disorder. This orderly environment seems to be increasingly lacking for European people.

Thus, the family environment is increasingly weak. Extended families, families composed of individuals without deep ties, no longer guarantee order in daily life. A small example: an increasing number of young people no longer know the order of the family meal; everyone eats as much as they want when they want. The disappearance of family meals removes the time frame in which the family becomes an element of order in our lives.

This lack of order is reflected at the international political level. Multilateralism weakens, and nation states try to affirm themselves: the state-as-person becomes weak, and the state-as-individual emerges. The state-as-person used to be a part of the community of states, but the state-as-individual thinks only of asserting itself in a new national egoism.

Old alliances, like those between European states and the United States, weaken at the same time as other powers, like China or Russia, become stronger.

Initially, European integration was the promise of a new order, an order of peace. For today’s European citizen, the Union is no longer a promise. For many young people today the concept of order comes from the order in their individual life, which is reflected more in the imagination than in reality. The regulatory will of the European Union disturbs them, and they do not understand that the order they desire is directed by the needs of reality. This new order of the imagination is the greatest risk for democracy, for citizens who are committed to peace, justice and the environment.

Migrations

Today in Europe, migrations are a cause of fear; they seem to disturb the internal order of European countries. Immigrants, who at the time of the economic miracle were welcome because they guaranteed economic well-being, have become foreigners: foreigners who, due to their religious and cultural differences, appear as threats to our little world.

Negative emotions explode: the other is no longer considered as an opportunity for an encounter, but as someone who deprives us of our identity. In fact, in many European city’s negative examples abound: Turkish or Arab neighborhoods where the native population no longer feels at home.

But is this the fault of the migrants, or is it not rather a lack of integration?

Is it not a purely materialistic policy, centered on the economy, which is at the origin of these divisions?

We must not judge lightly: there is always an encounter. In the coal mines, in the heavy industries in Europe the foreigner was always seen as a companion, a colleague. Many friendships and lots of marriages show that cultural and religious differences do not necessarily lead to exclusion. The world of the working classes was open to sharing and thus reflected a profoundly Christian attitude. Trade unionism was often more universal than our Churches, which after Vatican II became national Churches.

Most Churches in Europe have national episcopal conferences. Of course, these bodies allow bishops to face the real problems of their Church, but it also helps to cement the nation-state in the Catholic imagination and we surrender a sense of our universal vocation. The universality of Latin has given way to national languages, but the liturgy in national languages ​​has forgotten the values ​​of openness and dialogue that typified the Second Vatican Council.

Some readers might be surprised by this issue of the vernacular language, but in a Church like that of Luxembourg, which numbers many Catholic immigrants among the faithful, the problem of languages ​​in the liturgy is real, and in a society composed of separate worlds we are proceeding as separate Churches. Certainly there are movements in Europe that are more prophetic, but unfortunately the Church is often more of a brake than a motor.

The lack of renewal desired by the Second Vatican Council and a Catholicism based on rites might explain why populisms attract a number of practicing Catholics. Rites are an element of order in daily life; rites and order, considered together, become a place with an imaginary past that often pretends to represent “the Christian West.”

To move beyond this impasse we must cast aside all ecclesial self-referentiality. This is why Pope Francis invites us to live the Gospel in the encounter with the other, with the immigrant.

Politics does not accept wild, uncontrolled immigration. Our humanity and our Christian conscience ask us to respect, indeed love this neighbor. Europe will remain Catholic if we know how to live this encounter with migrants in conformity to the Gospel.

The plight of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean is a cause of shame for Europe. Due to its geographical position, the Mediterranean is like an inland sea connecting Europe, Asia and Africa. But it has become a wall of separation made of water. It has become an immense graveyard.

Coming to our countries, migrants have become our neighbors. Love for our neighbors requires us to think about migration with the eyes of migrants: eyes that see their fear, their worries, their hunger, their desire for security and their desire for economic stability. Many do not want to leave their own country; they are forced to do so by necessity.

Migrants also have the right to remain in their homeland, to be able to lead a dignified life in their country, with their family. Love of neighbor translated into politics requires real investments so that African countries can see sustainable development. We should not forget that Europeans received aid from the United States after the Second World War and this allowed European economies to recover. Is it not now the turn of Europeans to do the same for Africa, starting to work for fair economic structures without corruption?

The European Union, by adopting the values ​​of solidarity, takes to heart the noble aim of the common good.

Identity

Typical Europeans have lost their identity and family ties and no longer define themselves as persons but as individuals. For identity is vastly different from a passport, which can be put into a pocket; true identity is built in the ongoing dialogue of our lives: dialogue with God and dialogue with other people.

Europe, which is losing its identity, builds bad identities, populisms, where the nation is no longer lived as a political community, but becomes a ghost of the past, a specter that drags behind it the victims of wars caused by the nationalisms of history.

Populisms want to stave off real problems by organizing dances around a golden calf. They build a false identity, denouncing enemies who are accused of all the ills of society: for example, migrants or the European Union.

Populisms bind together individuals, not in communities where the other is a nearby person, a partner in dialogue and action, but rather in groups that repeat the same slogans, which create new uniformities, which are the gateways for new totalitarianisms.

A self-referential Christianity is at risk of adopting this denial of reality and is in peril of creating dynamics that will eventually devour Christianity itself. Steve Bannon and Aleksandr Dugin are the priests of these populisms that evoke a false pseudo-religious and pseudo-mystical world, denying the heart of western theology, which is God’s love and love of neighbor.

For love cannot exist without liberty, and liberty is the indispensable condition for all human interaction; it is the indispensable condition of action and political responsibility. Without liberty, our faith does not exist.

Therefore, let us rouse up in our citizens an appreciation for liberty, responsibility and solidarity. Let us give priority to a living faith, which is relationship, a faith that has no need of offering sacrifices on the altars of Baal.

But let us not be deceived: identity is important in a world that is looking for community. All identities must be respected; at the same time, however, everything must be done so that they are not closed, but open, and become dialoguing identities.

People

Respect for the people is the antidote to populisms. Europe is composed of different peoples with different cultures who together form European civilization. The people are not a mythical identity fixed by ancestral genes, but rather a community of people who share the same culture and are called together to work for the common good.

As Bergoglio wrote in 2010: “We have no need of a project of a few and for the few, of an enlightened minority or of witnesses, who appropriate a collective meaning. It is an agreement to live together. It is the expressed will to want to be a nation-people in the contemporary world.”[2]

These words, written by the Archbishop of Buenos Aires after the elections in Argentina of March 4, 2010, today retain all their relevance and can be understood as a criticism of the elites who lost the sense of being people, just like the philosophers and princes of the Enlightenment. Those who govern must feel part of the people and serve it not from the top in a pyramidal structure, but from inside it.

The people is not an anonymous mass needing to be dominated: it is composed of very different people with their human experiences that make them unique. They are the subjects of human rights. It is this profound respect for human rights that distinguishes sects from religions, totalitarianisms from democracies.

Democracy

Democratic forms of government are the best safeguard for human rights. But cultural changes do not spare our parliamentary democracies in Europe. European citizens feel growing unease toward the multinationals and financial powers. The bank crisis in Europe and the enrichment of a financial elite seem to show a connivance between economic powers and political elites.

Robert Schuman, the father of European integration, was not particularly charismatic. Yet today to be elected you need media influence. Complex texts are mysterious to many young voters. Votes come from the media, via video clips on the internet.

In the past, voting in Europe largely followed a clear separation between the right and the left. The classical right and left are mostly indistinguishable today in our European democracies. Those who seek a clearer political difference lean toward the more extreme right and left, which often delight in facile populisms.

The internet plays an increasingly important role in election campaigns. It is an internet that often allows anonymity, and where users no longer understand whether they are dealing with real people or algorithms. But even if we have a very favorable opinion of it, democracy maintains a certain discomfort with the internet.

Users tend to converge with those who share their ideas. After seeing the same repetitive arguments, voters tend to become more radicalized. Nor does internet communication lend itself to complex exchanges: short shared texts leave no room for distinctions.

It would be wrong, however, to demonize the internet. Postmodern democracy would not work without this means of communication. Certainly we need some kind of regulation to eliminate all that feeds hatred, to eliminate offense and abuse. We also need to create spaces on the net that can promote democratic debate.

Finally, we need a new education in schools that allows children and young people not only to become more expert users, but also to be able to distance themselves from this means of communication so as not to become its slaves. They should be able to distinguish actual data from fake news and know how to process the content they see.

In effect, it is a question of getting rid of the consumerist attitudes that have been introduced into our way of perceiving reality.

The consumerist mentality has replaced our mission, our duty in the political sphere: working for the common good, which is more than my personal good, is more than the good of my political community, and opens up to the universal.

Social

Democracies in Europe need stable societies. A society is stable if everyone can have a paid job that allows them to support their families. Many European citizens have the impression that the economy and finance are more interested in creating profit than in creating jobs. The unemployment rate of young people in Europe is too high in some countries. Populisms take advantage of unemployment, hiding the real causes and presenting the migrant as the cause.

The Juncker Plan for the European Union seeks to make up for any national weaknesses in job creation. Unfortunately, people are not sufficiently aware of it, and so the European Union is seen as conniving with the financial elites, who no longer understand the world of the unemployed youth.

Work becomes increasingly specialized, and unqualified workers easily lose their jobs over time. The skilled unemployed often leave their country to find work elsewhere. Many speak several languages ​​and have already had a European experience thanks to the Erasmus programs. They have a positive vision of European integration.

It is therefore clear that many young people with a high level of education have taken a stand against Brexit. But anyone who is unskilled and unemployed feels isolated in his or her own country, realizing that a qualified migrant has more opportunities in the labor market. They have little hope of improving their situation and life has become meaningless.

And young people have other fears concerning their jobs. Is it true that digital culture will create more employment than it will take away? What will these new jobs be? And who will benefit?

Already with the current welfare system the economic situation of many young people is precarious, and does not always make it possible to start a family. But will these systems remain in the future?

Are we seeing a progressive reduction in social benefits? Will these young people today be the poor of tomorrow?

In many European Union countries the discomfort is deep. Fear of social degradation is real. If the Union fails to show young people that their future is important to them, they will become prey to populism.

Environment

Young people fear for their future in an environment that is deteriorating. They do not understand internal conference politics where all countries set themselves concrete goals, while at the national level, out of laziness and for the sake of national economic interest, they are far from achieving them.

Young people take to the streets to demonstrate in favor of environmental and climate policies, and they are right, because solidarity is intergenerational by nature. It is sad to see how a generation of materialistic and consumerist adults no longer cares about the future of their children!

Solutions to the major problems of our planet fail to arrive, and the voice of the poor calls for climate justice. Fortunately, young people are idealists and have a strong sense of justice that can change the world.

With the encyclical Laudato Si’, the Church openly takes the side of the young and seeks to keep hope alive and to work so that it can become true. The Global Catholic Climate Movement is a good example.

The ecological challenge is an opportunity for Europe, because ideological problems are linked to the great questions of justice. Europe has to welcome the dreams of its young people: not unrealistic dreams, but dreams that become political action.

***

European politics must once again place at the center of political action the human person, who is replete with aspirations and hopes. European integration must show again that it is in favor of humanity and that it is trying to preserve peace in a world that is more dangerous than ever.

This is why our continent needs to work on its foundations. The appeal is still there to realize a Europe that takes into account its differences: differences that are an enrichment. Reconciliation between western and central Europe is not yet realized. Dialogue among Europeans could lead to new freedom.

Let us take advantage of the elections for the European Parliament to build new foundations for Europe. Because the European Union is in favor of the European person and is a factor of peace in the world.

For the Church, it is a matter of accompanying these dreams and hopes, with a greater awareness that it does not exist to be served, but to serve. Finally, this task is an opportunity for the new evangelization.

Let us not forget: we can meet God only in the real world.


[1] Cf. A. Spadaro, “Tornare a essere popolari. Sette parole per il 2019,” in Civ. Catt. 2019 I 42-44.

[2] J. M. Bergoglio, Nei tuoi occhi è la mia parola. Omelie e discorsi di Buenos Aires 1999-2013, Milano, Rizzoli, 2016, 818.