LEICESTER, United Kingdom – As the European Union prepares for its first elections since the United Kingdom voted to leave the economic bloc in 2016, one of the EU’s top prelates has warned the rise of populism may lead to a destabilization of democracy and a weakening of the European Union.
“Some populist policies take advantage of [people’s anguish] 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!” Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg writes in the latest issue of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Rome-based Jesuit periodical often seen as expressing the “inner mind” of the Vatican.
Hollerich, a Jesuit like Pope Francis, is the president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the EU (COMECE) which represents the bloc’s bishops’ conferences at its headquarters in Brussels.
European nations vote for members of the European Parliament May 23-26.
According to projections released last week, the center-right European People’s Party will remain the biggest group in the body, with 180 of the 751 seats, but that would still be a loss of 37 seats. The center-left Socialists and Democrats would drop from 186 to 149 seats. The Europe of Nations and Freedom group, which combines right-wing and Eurosceptic parties is predicted to nearly double its current count, from 37 to 62.
In his article, the archbishop traces the problems of the EU, especially since it began expanding into Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War.
“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,” Hollerich writes.
“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,” he says.
He gave some examples, such as differing attitudes to Muslim integration, based on differing histories, especially in relation to the Ottoman Empire, and the idea of “nation” versus the concept of “a people” and how this forged a country’s identity.
“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,” Hollerich says.
The Economic shock of the 2007-2008 financial crisis shook the European Union, especially after Greece suffered a series of debt crises and was forced by the EU into adopting severe austerity measures.
Hollerich said the bank crisis “and the enrichment of a financial elite” seemed to show a connivance between economic powers and political elites.
The archbishop said that in many European Union countries the discomfort is deep: Fear of social degradation is real, and if the EU fails to show young people that their future is important, “they will become prey to populism.”
“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,” he writes.
Eurosceptic and populist parties started gaining power throughout Europe, and have actually won elections in several countries, including powerhouses Italy and Poland. Even when not in power, they can push politics into a Eurosceptic direction. The prime example is when fears of the popularity of the UK Independence Party made Conservative leader David Cameron pledge during the 2015 national campaign to hold a referendum on EU membership.
In La Civiltà Cattolica, Hollerich has strong words for these populist movements, many of which claim a strong Christian identity.
“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,” the archbishop writes.
He calls their Christian identity “self-referential,” and says it is “at risk of adopting this denial of reality and is in peril of creating dynamics that will eventually devour Christianity itself.”
He calls former Trump official Steve Bannon and Russian rightwing socialist Aleksandr Dugin “the priests of these populisms,” adding that they “evoke a false pseudo-religious and pseudo-mystical world, denying the heart of western theology, which is God’s love and love of neighbor.”
Bannon has been a driving force behind the the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, an organization with strong ties to conservative Catholics and Pope Francis critics, which is setting up shop outside of Rome. Dugin has promoted an alliance of Slavic and Turkic peoples to oppose Western values.
In his article, Hollerich affirms 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,” he said, warning against a faith that seeks to offer “sacrifices on the altars of Baal.”
The Luxembourgeois archbishop says respect for the people is the antidote to populism.
“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,” he writes.
“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,” he continues.
Hollerich’s views on populism have a long pedigree in the Church. The Vatican opposed the rise of nationalism in Europe in the nineteenth century, and after the the breakup of the transnational continental empires after World War I, Pope Benedict XV said Christian Europe was destined by history to move toward “a unity that favored its prosperity and glory” and suggested an international association to draw nations closer together.
After Europe’s second fratricidal conflict of the 20th century, the Vatican greeted the Treaty of Rome which established the forerunner of the EU with enthusiasm. Pope Pius XII said for the new European Community to be successful, it would have to have a “political authority which will have sufficient responsibility to be felt.”
Admittedly, he was probably encouraged by the fact the three main drivers of the European project – Frenchman Robert Schuman, German Konrad Adenauer, and Italian Alcide De Gasperi – were not only Catholic, but also from areas of Europe – Alsace-Lorraine, the Rhineland, and Tyrol, respectively – which had long been contested by the great European powers, so they would know what was at stake as Europe tried to forge a lasting peace.
Hollerich says the European Union has followed the example of the founders: “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.”
The archbishop writes European politics “must once again place at the center of political action the human person, who is replete with aspirations and hopes.”
He adds the May elections for the European Parliament should be used to build “new foundations” for Europe.
“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,” writes Hollerich.