Citizens and the Making of Europe
Reflecting on the future of our continent, some politicians, parties and movements seem to put into doubt not only the European Union as we know it, but even the very existence of the process of building Europe. How should we orient ourselves before these tensions, the fruit of the lack of trust and nationalist sentiment?
Let us take a step back, to Compiègne, where in 1918 an armistice was signed, silencing the guns and bringing an end to a destructive conflict, World War I. However, it also ended up creating the conditions for a second conflict in Europe, which 21 years later spread throughout the world. We must also admit that in the course of the centuries Europe has rarely ceased to be at war. The process of the construction of the Union was an important factor in the pacification of the continent, but there still remains a lot to do. Therefore, one thing must be clear: to interrupt or put into doubt the European process means, in fact, evoking ghosts that we had put to rest.
Let us consider the “founding fathers” of Europe: their decisions and their undertakings came from their respective experiences, some of which were formed by the social teaching of the Church. Alcide De Gasperi, Altiero Spinelli, Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Joseph Bech, Konrad Adenauer, Paul-Henri Spaak…
In 1918 they did not know each other, but the circuitous routes of history led them, each doing his part, to contribute to a project that permitted the creation of a peaceful, developed, just and united European society. La Civiltà Cattolica, in February 1930, expressed this awareness: “One may argue at length and ceaselessly battle over the technicalities of a new European organization, but certainly not over its necessity today.”
Equally, all the citizens who resisted the two great dictatorships of the 20th century, both in the west and the east of the continent, are also the founders of Europe. They spilled their blood even to the point of giving their lives, so that the values which put the human person at the center of the European social project could be a reality, both nationally and across the nations.
The European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for having contributed to the establishment of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe. The prize was well-earned, but let us not also forget that these 60 years of peace in Europe have not run like a gentle stream. They have also been rich in ideological confrontations, actions contrary to human rights, military interventions in violation of the right of peoples to self-determination. There were events, however, that represented moments of awakening for peoples and the transformation of European society. One of these is the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which was a turning point in the history of the continent and of the European community, putting it before its responsibilities, obliging it to open itself to welcoming the former states of the eastern bloc, facilitating thus the recovery and spread of the values of a free Europe.
At the time, an aspiration for the enlargement of the European Community prevailed, but it was not for the sake of political consolidation. Even today, many in western Europe ask themselves if it was prudent to accept such enlargement. What is certain is that it facilitated the birth of a Europe that has to breathe with two lungs, as St. John Paul II said prophetically. The process of enlargement was imposed in the past and has not yet been completed, given that some Balkan countries may still also become part of the European Union.
However, a consolidation is necessary today. The construction of the “shared European home” needs to be the result of citizens who are strong in their cultural identity, responsible for their community, and at the same time aware that solidarity with the rest of Europe is essential.
The Christian conscience is fully engaged in this process. It is called into question by the centuries of war and tragedies in Europe, which is a concrete reminder to us of our responsibilities as Christians in today’s world.
Certainly, Christian values are present in the European process today through the daily lives of those men and women who are responsible and of good will. And this will continue. Archbishop Alain Lebeaupin, the apostolic nuncio to the European Union, told me: “The Christians of Europe cannot retreat before the completion of their historical responsibilities in regard to the future of Europe.” He inspired these reflections of mine.
Francis has regularly spoken about the future of Europe since the beginning of his pontificate, especially in five important speeches: the two in the European Parliament and the European Council, in Strasburg in November 2014; the speech on the occasion of the conferring of the Charlemagne Prize in May 2016; the speech to the heads of state or government gathered together in Rome in March 2017 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the founding treaties; and finally, the speech given in October 2017 to the colloquium organized by the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the EU (COMECE) in the Vatican to rethink Europe. We hold that these texts of Francis ought to be read again today, on the eve of the May elections, in relation to what the construction of Europe means in history and what the place of Europe is in the world. In these speeches one rediscovers the idea of a Europe capable of giving birth to a new humanism, founded on the ability to integrate, dialogue and generate.
The great challenge consists in recognizing that we are in the midst of the long process of building Europe. This had its initiators in certain “founders,” and also in all those who have done their part as citizens to overcome the nationalist and totalitarian tensions that tore apart the fabric of the continent, and of which the “sovereignties” of today are the heirs. However, the Europe of today now needs citizens and not just inhabitants. Europe is a union of peoples not just institutions. And it is the citizens who have to be put in the position to be able to take part in the decisions and to feel themselves protagonists, above all in the improvement of the current European process.
The current situation, therefore, demands precise political choices on the part of European citizens, who cannot be mere observers, but rather must be persons who have at heart the fate of our continent and the peace that the European process has guaranteed us. At least until now.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 5, article 6, May 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1905.6