The Covid-19 crisis has brought to the fore a key question of recent years. It is the crucial question for Western European countries: Is there still a future for the European Union? For this Union that gives weight and backbone to a hard-to-define geographical Europe? One can almost hear the words that the Lord spoke to the prophet Jeremiah in the time of exile and despair: “There is hope for your future, says the Lord” (Jer 31:17). In the face of criticism and mistrust, is it possible to imagine a plausible future for Europe without the European Union? Must the Union be a political and not just economic entity for Europe to be an effective part of human history? And should it not also have a cultural and spiritual dimension?

Many people who had hitherto been rather pro-European became less so following the ups and downs of EU aid as the global economic crisis due to the pandemic was beginning to take shape. Eurosceptics rejoiced and propounded their “solution” of retreat into national spheres as the only possible one. The pro-Europeans reiterated that, to be effective, solutions and responses must be European and coordinated, but the refrain seems worn out. Is it possible to identify reasons for hope?

An old issue

The question has taken on a more obvious gravity, but it is not at all new. For years people have been wondering how to breathe new life into the process of uniting European countries. With the dominance of financial concerns, the limits of the democratic process, too much bureaucracy, and above all the lack of inspiration for the future, is Europe still making people dream? The answer is clearly negative in many cases, as Brexit has shown. 

On the one hand, many are convinced that a more united and more decisive Europe is the only way to carry out its responsibilities in the face of China and the United States and, closer to us, to resist Putin’s meddling, aimed at weakening democracies.

He does so not because he has an eye on Europe as such, but because a failure of this great democratic enterprise would favor the survival of his authoritarian system and long-term confirmation of his tenure in power, convincing the remaining Russian liberals and democrats that it is pointless to look to the West. Strategies of this ilk have been pursued for two centuries in Russia.

On the other hand, there are those who are convinced that a reshaping of national identities – sometimes thousands of years old, sometimes much more recent, but undoubtedly symbolically and emotionally strong – is the only way to give hope back to peoples, especially those in the less advantaged socioeconomic groups, who feel excluded from the flows and benefits of globalization as well as culturally and socially marginalized in their own countries.

The Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom and the rise of so-called “populist movements” in continental Europe have shown this.[1] The Covid-19 crisis makes one question more urgent. It can be formulated as follows: Is there an alternative to the European political project that arose after the terrible destruction of the Second World War, a war that was certainly global, but generated by European hatred and resentment? Can political Europe reconcile maintaining old nations, rich in traditions, and a supranational structure with increasing authority, both with a real degree of democratic legitimacy? What are the weaknesses and resources with which the peoples of Europe face their future?

The unavoidable demographic factor

The recent health crisis has highlighted the average age of the European population. The proportion of people over the age of 65 has reached levels that the human species has never known before and raises unprecedented issues for public health policies.[2] The recurring debates about euthanasia are also a sign of this social problem. Let us remember that a century ago Europe dominated the world politically (particularly through its colonial empires), economically and demographically, a domination destined to end after the great carnage of the First World War and the moral failure it symbolized. Europe, however, was not yet fully aware of this (except perhaps the great Austro-Hungarian prophetic writers).

That conflict considerably accelerated the progressive decline of Europe that the Second World War and the following two decades would exacerbate. Its values, languages and political system were transmitted throughout the world. Europe then represented 25 percent of the world’s population, while now it represents less than 10 percent. It was in ruins after the Second World War, but it can be said that it was the European project that made its return to the international stage a reality. Despite the end of the colonial empires, despite its economic decline compared to Japan and the United States (before China entered into large-scale industrial production), Europe was able to create a degree  of prosperity never seen before, with strategies that were very favorable to economic trade and that made it possible to avoid those conflicts between states that had been so terrible in previous centuries.

Despite the gradual slide into a “demographic winter” since the mid-1970s – the fall below the level of population maintenance (2.1 percent of the fertility index) in almost all countries – the European population has sustained itself thanks to the contribution of the immigrant labor force. But this raises an inevitable question: What kind of energy can still be generated by a society in deep and irreversible demographic decline in order not to become more and more an unfeeling gerontocracy that is inhospitable toward young people?

The anguish of rural and semi-rural populations in the face of the ethnic and cultural mix of Europe’s great metropolises is a key factor in recent elections and reflects the concern of the elderly population at the transformations experienced by nations that are changing more than some hoped for. Nor should we forget the migration within Europe, which has greatly accentuated the aging effect of the countries of Central Europe (Bulgaria, Romania) and Eastern Europe (Ukraine).

As Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich writes: “Policies must take fears into account. These often glorify the past and impede dynamics oriented toward the future. If 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.”[3] The demographic factor is economically and culturally destabilizing: it gives enormous weight to a more conservative population, which moves and consumes less; and, on the other hand, it makes the mixture of peoples more visible and more disturbing. 

The anguish of the working class

Since the end of the 1970s, the oil crisis – and then the economic crisis – has become constant (massive unemployment, welfare state crises, reduced social mobility); industrial jobs have moved elsewhere in the world (and, increasingly in the 21st century, to China and other emerging economies). The European working classes have therefore had to face a profound crisis of meaning.[4] They have lost the industrial and trade union strongholds (mines, steelworks, automotive industries and the like ) that were the spearhead of their influence and have found themselves in an increasingly deep identity crisis.

We have not yet emerged from this crisis, and the European project is too often perceived as bureaucratic, distant, elitist, exclusively financial and undemocratic. All too often, moreover, member states have masked their painful decisions by sheltering behind Brussels, without sufficiently emphasizing the great benefits provided by the Union: a vast and practical internal market; the low cost of money thanks to a Central Bank benefiting from the German guarantee; structural funds that have helped the poorest countries to enter the Union (first the Iberian peninsula, then Greece and Ireland, then the Eastern countries); better negotiating capacity in trade discussions with outside countries; exchange and training programs at Union level.

On the other hand, Community funding instruments show how powerful the Union can be financially, if there is the political will. It is in financial matters that both the best (the ability to support development projects) and the worst (the inability to implement real solidarity, as in the case of the corona bonds debate) of Europe is revealed. The question of corona bonds shows the gap that has been created within a purely mercantile Europe project, in which the social and political elements are relegated to the role of “poor relations.”

Social crisis and political crisis combine today with a unique health crisis. Can Europe recover? And if so, how? Will the Covid-19 pandemic be the final straw for the struggling European project? Or will it be an opportunity for new solidarity and a renewed project? There are many reasons to doubt the latter. Behind this question which many European leaders are asking themselves, there is another that is more decisive and even more delicate: What do the peoples of Europe really want? How do they want to live? Is there still a role for them in history that would give meaning to their future, both as “old” nations carrying a rich cultural and spiritual heritage and as members of a supranational political Union? Are there prophets today who dare to announce to Europe that there may be hope for its future?

An ancient proverb says: “You can’t both be and have been.” Europe has certainly been something in history. Must it resign itself to seeing itself in the future only as a marginal place where Chinese and Americans, Russians and Arabs compete to buy their palaces, their football teams or sell their products? According to this ancient wisdom, Europe has already had its moment of glory, its historic moment; now it has to abandon all pretensions to influence the great issues of the world, and give way to others and fall back on nostalgia for its past greatness. It would be vain to want to delay the inevitable and still want to be something.  This almost stoic attitude, however,  does not seem attuned to Gospel values.

Considerable obstacles

Let us remember the obstacles facing the European project. Firstly, there is an unbalanced demography, which affects public choices and requires policies in favor of the elderly. The older a population is, the more afraid it is, and the more everything that is based on fear weighs on choices. The more a population struggles to renew itself, the more the foreigners within it arouse fear, because they are younger and more prolific in increasing their numbers.

Secondly, there is a real crisis in the democratic political model. Democracy, as we know, is not primarily made up of institutions and an electoral system, of formal guarantees – even if all this is indispensable – but involves a set of parties, associations and, above all, a common ethos, a fundamental agreement on the values that give meaning to the system of legal norms that express them. Now, European societies have become fragmented.[5] The large, leading institutions that made it possible to have a group of activists benefiting from a shared political education (churches, political parties, trade unions and various associations) have collapsed ; individualism and utilitarianism have become established as values, making it more difficult to create political projects that last beyond the short term.

Thirdly, economic specialization on a global scale has meant that some privileged groups have retained important and well-paid jobs, while many members of the working classes have suffered downgrading and unemployment.  The UK is an excellent example, with its famous zero-hour contracts. There is also the threat of downgrading and unemployment for those who have not yet been affected, and fear for their children and grandchildren. As a result, interests diverge and left-wing parties, like the right, struggle to come up with credible political projects. New parties, so-called “populist” ones, propagandize by calling into question Europe, free trade and immigration. However, their supposed “solutions” seem more like optical illusions than concrete measures.

All over the world, China is increasing its influence through its financial resources and products, while the United States is rediscovering a policy of isolationism and showing little inclination toward multilateralism. Then there is Russia, which has tried several times to influence political campaigns in Western countries and is not afraid to enter into a lasting conflict with the European Union, as demonstrated by its lack of willingness to end the conflict in Ukraine.

The Covid-19 health crisis favors a retreat into the nation-state and has caused an abrupt economic crisis, highlighting the old European problems and the real differences in sensitivity in Europe. On this point there is a clear gap between the East and West of the Union, as Cardinal Hollerich noted: “The countries of Central Europe rather shared the German concept of ‘people,’ different from the French concept of ‘nation,’ as guarantor of freedom and independence: its connotations were positive. The 2004 enlargement was a missed opportunity for European integration. The dialogue between different narratives did not take place.”[6] The obstacles are not new, but they now appear in all their strength.

What is Europe?

Russia is an excellent starting point for asking the question again about the nature of Europe. For Europe, after all, is not a continent like any other: it is only a peninsula on the Asian continent, and the question of its “borders” is one of the oldest in geography. A question that arises neither for Africa, nor for America, nor Oceania is: Where is the European border? A traditional answer is that it runs from the Urals to the Bosphorus, passing through the Volga and the Caucasus. But are the Azeris as European as the Armenians or the Georgians? Europe is first and foremost a cultural area marked by Rome, Athens and Jerusalem.[7]

For two centuries Slavophiles and Westerners have been discussing whether Russia is fundamentally European or Asian, or embody a “third way” that would be neither. The question of Russia’s relationship with the European Union is not only a political question, but also, and perhaps first of all, a question of soul, culture and values. That is why, among other things, the ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is so relevant. Hence the importance of the Joint Declaration signed in Cuba in 2016 by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill.[8]

A similar problem arises with Turkey. It has kept a very small area in Europe, even though, under the current regime, everything tends to tie it to the Turkish-speaking Asian world and make it abandon the European Dream. Europe as well is not at all enthusiastic about welcoming it.

Russian and Turkish issues are, in a sense, twins, as they both raise the question of Europe in terms of values and beliefs far more than of geography. And this is essentially the fundamental question, undoubtedly more decisive than the others mentioned above.

A matter of faith and values

No human community, as well as no individual, can live without hope and without faith, even if the latter is an elementary belief in the value of one’s life. As Cardinal Hollerich states, “Europe cannot be built without a vision of Europe, without ideals.”[9] Since the 1960s there has been a deep crisis in the traditional system of values, and Christianity no longer holds a privileged place in it. This is a phenomenon not confined to Europe, even if it is undoubtedly within it that this rupture is most evident.

This crisis ranges from the cultural sphere to religious practice, as well as collectivist ideologies that supported social commitment and had taken on an important role in Europe since the Age of Enlightenment. Where is the socialist movement today that was so powerful with its unions, parties, associations and intellectuals? The Christian confessions represent only a small part of young people and the animation of cultural and civil life. In many countries – from Scandinavia to Spain, passing through the Netherlands and the United Kingdom – Churches seem to continue to exist only through grey buildings and some residual traditions.[10] Of course, Italy and Poland are exceptions, but even in these countries the process of secularization is remarkable and the birth rate is just as low, if not lower, than elsewhere. Both the elites and the working classes seem hesitant: Where to go? To whom to turn?

The old models seem to have disappeared or become ineffective, but the voices calling for new ones are struggling to find agreement or go beyond the stage of the magic formula. Can one still believe that, with global warming and the demographic growth of some regions of the world, it is really possible to establish sealed boundaries, even when there is a need for so many students and low-skilled workers? Is it possible to stay in an important place for medical or industrial research without having intensive exchanges with the rest of the world? Can we consider ourselves as part of a giant global amusement park,

a park populated by elderly people who need a large number of women from abroad to take care of them – often admirably so – workers who come and do jobs that nobody wants to do any more, in slaughterhouses or repairing roads, not to mention the construction and agricultural sectors?

Of course, amongst the working classes downgraded by 40 years of globalization and deindustrialization, there is a strong temptation to say: “Let us turn back to ourselves; let us preserve our culture and our values; let us not allow millions of foreigners thirsty for land and work to come and live in our neighborhoods and take up our jobs! Let us rebuild our national strength!”

But is that possible? And even if it were, would it really be an ideal harbinger of a future? On nostalgia and resentment, on closure and exclusion, nothing can be built but a retirement home without heirs. History amply shows us this. Only an impetus to restore hope and values can give meaning to a human community. Europe cannot be content to be an area of weak economic growth with more or less rigid borders. It cannot aim to become or remain a museum that honors its past, judging it more or less glorious.

The challenge is, first of all, spiritual: “The crisis is a turning point: it could weaken us or make us respond effectively to new challenges. The coronavirus crisis presents us with personal, existential and religious challenges.”[11] The overall picture does not really inspire optimism. But is it really the last word that can be said? Can we articulate an outline of what could be a source of hope for Europe? 

Ways ahead

There are ways that could help to justify the European project and the continued existence of the ancient peoples who bear this identity. Firstly, because Europe has largely contributed to the destruction of natural resources and, since the Industrial Revolution, has fostered a predatory relationship with the world, it could set itself the challenge of becoming a greener and less polluted area. In seriousness, this means the need to invent new lifestyles and production systems less greedy for energy, promote a green revolution, change the relationships with consumption. This is a challenging program, since it is well known how much the car is still part of everyday habits; tourism abroad is widely popular and, above all, consumerism has gained a prominent place in the value system. In short, public policies must be directed toward an ecological transition in which economic activity is no longer driven primarily by ruinous fossil fuels, but by services to people; a society that rediscovers the local, the service and non-commercial dimensions and the healing of an exhausted and wounded land must be promoted. This is easier said than done when, for example, dependence on mobile phones – and other digital gadgets – continues to impoverish undeveloped countries and saturate energy-intensive internet traffic.

The prolonged lockdown was enough to show spectacularly the resilience of our planet, which suddenly became bluer. It was like a scientific proof of human impact, an experimental verification of the ecological beliefs sustained, among others, by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’.

There is also the question, in light of the demographic weakening, of inventing a society that accepts having a large number of elderly people. In our society with its declining demographics the issue of care for the elderly is clearly essential, as the Covid-19 crisis has made clear, and this society has everything to gain from redesigning itself as a society of care, concern and attentiveness for the youngest, the disabled and the homeless.

Society must also face the progressive weakening of the family unit and try to defend it. As Cardinal Hollerich said: “The current crisis also shows us the need for human relations and networks of solidarity. Closed schools and kindergartens and work from home show us the importance of the family as the prime cell of solidarity. Past policies have undermined family networks, fostering individualism, the result of our economic preferences. I call on politicians to do everything possible to strengthen families, the prime nuclei of solidarity.”[12]

Inevitably we need to have the courage to address the issue of cultural and religious diversity, the integration of populations seeking prosperity and a better life, or simply fleeing war and drought. European nations are the matrix of the creation of a new political unity, in which it should be possible to reconcile different affiliations and identities. One of the keys to the Europe of tomorrow is the challenge to allow people from other parts of the world to realize their desire to participate in the cultural and political life of their new home, one that has its roots in ancient history and has a particular identity with cultural and emotional ties to the world of their own parents.

Wanting to defend a nationalism of an ethnic type or based on the exclusion of people of foreign origin can only lead to civil conflict.[13] It is a dead end. It is suicidal, both morally and demographically. Churches have their role to play in the processes and opportunities to create a political unity that truly honors the European Union’s maxim of unity in diversity. It is an intrinsically Catholic maxim, since the Church unites different peoples in one family and upholds the ideal of a true unity of humanity in respect of every language, culture and tradition.

The Church undoubtedly struggles to live this reality perfectly, but she has always recognized its value and relevance. We must always remember the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity are cornerstones of the European Union.[14] In a certain sense, Europe is called to seek to implement politically and culturally what the Catholic Church seeks to incarnate religiously in the world: a true communion, while respecting cultural differences.

Europe as a laboratory

Europe could therefore be like a laboratory for a humanity healed from its hubris, from its mad race toward “more and more” in production and consumption; of a humanity that respects differences and accepts solidarity, honoring every history and every language, but recognizing the need for true political unity. For decades, Latin America and Africa have been generating visionaries who hope for progress on their respective continents. Even a relatively successful Europe at this level would encourage them, while any failure, with a return to “everyone for themselves,” would slow down any plans for unity.

During his press conferences on the occasion of the Covid-19 crisis, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has repeatedly said that what was happening in New York would happen elsewhere, telling the citizens of other states: “We are your future.” In this context, Europe is the future of humanity, because it anticipates developments that will necessarily take place elsewhere. For example, the demographic question and the place of older people in society will soon arise in a very similar way elsewhere. And the shift to an economic model less based on consumption at all costs and the destruction of natural resources is a challenge that goes far beyond Europe and of which more and more people on Earth are becoming aware. Europe’s destiny is to reinvent itself profoundly, without losing the link with previous generations and the pages of history, some of which have been truly glorious.

Europe must abandon the illusion of omnipotence, the temptation to leave history by abandoning it and withdraw into its own small enclosed garden; it must promote a society of dialogue, care and respect for the weakest. By giving back a central role to the health workforce, the Covid-19 crisis has shown that it is not necessarily the highest paid people who are the most indispensable for the functioning of society. Likewise, Europe is called to be a space where the search for meaning is recognized in the variety of its forms and where different religions dialogue in mutual respect.


One of the universal symbols of the European myth is Ian Fleming’s character, James Bond, the British secret agent who has become a world-renowned icon. The paradox is that these films continue to be made about a hero who represents a vanished world, that of the British Empire. On the other hand, when the character of Bond was conceived, the United Kingdom was already – politically, militarily and also with regard to its intelligence services – a close ally of the United States of America. He is a hero who does not seem admirable, both in his relationship with violence and with women. Yet James Bond remains. The myth develops and the series continues.

In the 2012 film Skyfall – masterfully directed by Sam Mendes, and marking the 50th anniversary of the James Bond saga, which opened in 1962 – the question is explicitly asked: “Is it still possible to be James Bond today? Does it still make sense?” Screenwriters ask, “How can we still make a James Bond in 2012? Isn’t he finished, outdated, old-fashioned?”

 The film asks the question not only of the character, but also of the United Kingdom and, more generally, of Europe: what sort of life can you live, what lifestyle do you still want to live? Some say quietly, and not without reason: “Europe is over. Yes, you have dominated the world; you have made your mark and exported your beliefs and technologies everywhere, but your era is over. All that remains is to leave the stage of history and fall into oblivion.”

The main issue facing Europe today is the meaning of its existence and its collective project. Europe is faced with a challenge: Does it still want to live? Does it still have a collective hope? In the film, it is M, James Bond’s boss, who expresses her beliefs. You see her shaken in front of the coffins of murdered young Britons, covered by the Union Jack. Does Europe still have young people ready to die for their country and the hope it represents?

In front of the arrogant committee of inquiry that interrogates her, M defends the meaning of the struggle of her life and quotes the final part of a famous poem of Tennyson: “Though much is taken, much abides; and though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, one equal temper of heroic hearts; made weak by time and fate, but strong in will; to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”[15]

What these verses reflect is the European kairos of our day: we will never again be what we were in the history of the world, but we are still here. Do we not yet have something to live for? Do we not have a contribution to make that can be of value to the whole world? This without the desire to show any moral or cultural superiority, but having a sense of a future that is still open in a different way; humbly, but without giving up a legacy of which we have reason to be proud for many reasons.

Yes, we are only what we are, but what we will be depends on what we still want to be. It is hoped that Europe will find meaning in its existence again; that every nation within it will find meaning, and the project of unity in diversity will be rediscovered, which will enable it to participate in the multipolar world of tomorrow.

Covid-19 and the climate crisis make matters more transparent. In his speech to the European Parliament in 2014, without in any way concealing the difficulties, Pope Francis outlined the roadmap: “The time has come to work together in building a Europe which revolves not around the economy, but around the sacredness of the human person, around inalienable values, in building a Europe which courageously embraces its past and confidently looks to its future in order fully to experience the hope of its present. The time has come for us to abandon the idea of a Europe which is fearful and self-absorbed, in order to revive and encourage a Europe of leadership, a repository of science, art, music, human values and faith as well.”[16] To encourage us, these are the words of Saint Paul: “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong” (1 Cor 16:13).

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 08 art. 3, 0620: 10.32009/22072446.0820.3

[1].    The populist mindset is not new, and can be seen among the Ancient Romans, cf. R. Doan, Quand Rome inventait le populisme, Paris, Cerf, 2019. Cf. C. Guilluy, La France périphérique. Comment on a sacrifié les classes populaires, Paris, Flammarion, 2014.

[2].    See M. Rastoin, “L’invecchiamento della popolazione mondiale e il futuro dell’umanità”, in Civ. Catt. 2014 II 444-456.

[3].    J.-C. Hollerich, “Toward the European elections”, in Civ. Catt. En. April, 2019 https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/toward-the-european-elections/

[4].    See, on this point, C. Guilluy, La France périphérique…, op. cit.; Id., No society. La fin de la classe moyenne occidentale, Paris, Flammarion, 2018.

[5].    Cf. the French sociological analysis by J. Fourquet, L’archipel français. Naissance d’une nation multiple et divisée, Paris, Seuil, 2019.

[6].    J.-C. Hollerich, “Toward the European elections”, op. cit.

[7].    See R. Brague, Europe, la voie romaine, Paris, Criterion, 1992. In this book Rome is seen as the city that holds Athens and Jerusalem together.

[8].    See Joint Declaration by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia, Cuba, February 12, 2016, in w2.vatican.va/ We read in paragraph 16: “The process of European integration, begun after centuries of bloody conflict, has been welcomed by many with hope, as a guarantee of peace and security. However, we call for vigilance against an integration that would not be respectful of religious identities. While remaining open to the contribution of other religions to our civilization, we are convinced that Europe must remain faithful to its Christian roots.”

[9].    See J.-C. Hollerich, “Europe and the Virus”, in Civ. Catt. En., April, 2020, https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/europe-and-the-virus

[10].   One can read about the spiritual and cultural emptiness of the working classes in de-Christianized Europe in the interesting history-investigation by F. Aubenas, Le Quai de Ouistraham, Paris, L’Olivier, 2010.

[11].   J.-C. Hollerich, “Europe and the Virus”, op. cit.

[12].   Ibid.

[13].   This does not mean that we do not have to oppose Islamic fundamentalism and its desire to build communities in which it is dominant.

[14].   Cf. Francis, Speech to the European Parliament, Strasbourg, November 25, 2014, in w2.vatican.va/ The pope said: “The proper configuration of the European Union must always be respected, based as it is on the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, so that mutual assistance can prevail and progress can be made on the basis of mutual trust.”

[15].   Tennyson, Ulysses

[16].   Francis, Speech to the European Parliament, op. cit. Like the speech in Strasbourg, the ones for the reception of the Charlemagne Prize (2016) and to the Heads of State and Government of the European Union (2017) also show the concern that the Argentine pope has for Europe.