ROME – In a provocative reflection on the coronavirus and Europe, Luxembourg Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich said aloud what many at this moment are likely thinking: With the European Union in disarray over the migration crisis and weakened by the withdrawal of the United Kingdom, could the global COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic be the tipping point signaling the end is near?
Speaking of the global impact the coronavirus is having and the need for solidarity with those who will and are suffering in the economic fallout, Hollerich, who was given a red hat by Pope Francis in 2019, said “The largest solidarity network we can imagine is the European Union. Yet the EU seems paralyzed.”
President of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), Hollerich spoke in an article to be published in Saturday’s print edition of the Jesuit-run journal La Civilta Cattolica, but which is already available on their Italian-language website.
In Europe, “the return to national interests seems obvious to most member countries,” he said; then, turning to the current back and forth over aid packages for EU member states most heavily impacted by COVID-19, he said that so far, “The crisis seems to favor the individualism of nations.”
Noting how past epidemics have left lasting impressions on European life and culture, Hollerich mused aloud as to what will be “the traces of the coronavirus pandemic in the collective memory of the European peoples.”
“Europe cannot be built without an idea of Europe, without ideals,” he said, and pointed to increasingly strict migration policies in many European nations, as well as prominent images of overcrowded refugee camps and capsized boats in the Mediterranean. These incidents, he said, “have inflicted deep wounds on the European ideal.”
When it comes to the coronavirus, he said a lack of solidarity with heavily hit countries “can become the fatal wound,” he said. “We see in evidence the difficulty of European solidarity … I fear that for many this will be the disenchantment with the European project.”
Pope Francis himself has often spoken out against a wave of nationalist populism that has swept across much of the world, including many European countries, tending to put individual interests before the good of the whole.
He has also often advocated for European unity, particularly in the aftermath of Brexit. In his April 12 Easter Sunday Urbi et Orbi address, Francis recalled the wave of solidarity that swept through Europe post-World War II, part of which led to the creation of the European Union, which he said currently finds itself in the midst of a massive crisis.
With the coronavirus compounding these challenges, the pope said it is more urgent than ever that “these rivalries do not regain force, but that all recognize themselves as part of a single family and support one another.”
The status of Europe and the European project as a whole was likely also a key talking point in the pope’s March 30 meeting with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who from the beginning has been among the European leaders pushing strongest and fastest for a response from the E.U. about financial assistance amid the coronavirus outbreak, as Italy long has been one of the hardest hit countries in Europe.
Hollerich’s concerns, and those of the pope, were echoed by Italian economist Stefano Zamagni, who in an April 14 roundtable with journalists challenged the current EU model in moments of crisis.
“One thing this pandemic makes us understand is that this European Union model is not good. It’s fine for ordinary things…but not when extraordinary phenomena happen,” said Zamagni, a professor at the University of Bologna and the current President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, making him one of the top-ranking laymen at the Vatican.
Pointing to several European countries, specifically Germany and the Netherlands, who refuse to go above a certain limit in crisis funding for other European countries severely impacted by COVID-19, Zamagni called this “unacceptable,” insisting that, “You can’t speak of a European Union. Where is the union?”
“There isn’t a union, there is only a convergence of interests” on certain issues, he said, noting that the E.U. also lacks a common foreign policy, and common models for handling welfare and debt, as well as migrant influx.
In his article, Hollerich said the post-war period was key for establishing new networks of relationships within Europe and beyond. “How can we now foresee the reconstruction of European countries at the end of the crisis?” he asked, speaking of the coronavirus.
Without economic and financial assistance, the risk is that “poor countries will become poorer,” he said, adding that, “This is the latest chanche (chance) given to the European project.”
“I wholeheartedly hope that the countries of the north will carry out a project of solidarity with the countries of southern Europe, not under blackmail, but making every effort possible, in a great gesture of European solidarity,” he said. “Otherwise, it is not only the European idea that is at risk. It is the map of a world that will change after this crisis.”
“Europe could emerge weaker, and the return to nationalism could weaken the nation-states themselves,” he said, adding that the coronavirus could also help Europe to rise up and face new challenges depending on how things develop.
Noting the personal, existential and religious challenges provoked by COVID-19, as well as social and political challenges Europe must now face, Hollerich insisted that for Christians, it is an opportunity “to mediate on all of these challenges, associating them with the paschal mystery, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord and brother.”
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