ROME – Europe’s bishops have voiced support for the European Union’s future enlargement plans, saying it provides a unique opportunity to showcase the value of fraternity, but they also cautioned against the imposition of ideology and the pursuit of particular interests.

In a statement issued during their April 17-19 spring plenary assembly in Łomża, Poland, the Commission of Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) praised European integration as a process aimed at guaranteeing “peace, freedom, democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights and prosperity.”

It is also a process, they said, that is “based also on Christian values, like the recognition of the dignity of the human person, subsidiarity, solidarity and the pursuit of the common good.”

The bishops recalled the EU’s significant enlargement process in May 2004, when it added 10 new member states, marking what the bishops said “was the realization of a united Europe that could ‘breathe with its two lungs,’” bringing Eastern and Western Europe together into one community of different peoples, but sharing a common history.

This step, they said, made Europe “closer to what it is called to be, and a powerful witness to our times of how fraternal cooperation, in pursuit of peace and rooted in shared values, can prevail over conflicts and divisions.”

According to COMECE, a larger union has also brought new challenges with it, with a political and economic integration accompanied by what can often be a “questionable” dialogue among various nationalities, cultures and historical experiences.

“As long as a true European spirit that includes a sense of belonging to the same community and of a shared responsibility for it, is not fully developed, trust within the European Union may be undermined and the forging of unity may be confronted with attempts to put particular interests and narrow visions above the common good,” the bishops said.

They noted that while various crises in past years have brought an “enlargement fatigue,” recent developments such as the war in Ukraine have created a new drive for access to the EU, especially for the Balkans.

“Beyond being a geopolitical necessity for stability on our continent, we regard the prospect of a future EU membership as a strong message of hope for the citizens of the candidate countries and as an answer to their desire for living in peace and justice,” the bishops said.

However, they said accession to the EU is “a two-way process,” and that countries desiring EU membership must continue making structural reforms in crucial areas such as “the rule of law, strengthening of democratic institutions, fundamental rights, including religious freedom and freedom of the media, as well as fight against corruption, tackling organized crime.”

A fair and citizen-centered enlargement process must also encourage and respond adequately to these efforts, while avoiding any “double-standards in the treatment of the candidate countries,” the bishops said.

Enlargement efforts also require the EU to be ready to welcome new members, they said, saying expansion of the EU is an opportunity “to update the idea of a united Europe rooted in practical solidarity” and to recover the great ideals that inspired its foundation.

“An enlarged Union will also have to re-think its ways of governance, in order to allow its members and institutions to act in a timely and effective manner,” COMECE said, saying any adjustments to EU budgetary frameworks, policies or other areas of cooperation, should weigh the potential impact on people, especially the most vulnerable populations of current and potential future member states.

The bishops called for a deeper reflection the “common value basis and the special bonds that unite us as a European family,” saying, “Europe has a future if it is truly a union, cherishing unity in diversity.”

“The principles of subsidiarity, of respect for the different traditions and cultures that all together form Europe, and of following the path of practical solidarity against the one of ideological imposition, are paramount,” they said.

Bishop Mariano Crociata of Noto opened COMECE’s spring plenary by pointing to the importance of upcoming EU parliamentary elections, scheduled for June, saying they are a unique and critical way to strengthen the EU.

“It’s vital to help our countries, starting with our faithful, to take the elections seriously, valuing participation and responsibility, possibly in line with mature Christian awareness,” he said, repeating pleas from COMECE leaders for Europe to remember its Christian roots as the elections approach.

On the EU’s role in the world, Crociata also stressed the importance of unity, saying, “in a multipolar world that sees the rise of new leading powers, a European Union divided by internal quarrels, unable to speak with one voice, can only prepare itself to pay the high price of marginalization.”

During their assembly, COMECE members reflected on the 20th anniversary of the big 2004 EU enlargement and they engaged with various political and religious figures in evaluating the successes and failures of that step.

Among those with whom the assembly met were Ján Figel, a member of the Board of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, former Special Envoy for the promotion of Freedom of Religion and Belief outside the EU, and Chief Negotiator in Slovakia’s EU accession process.

They also met with Alojz Peterle, former Prime Minister of Slovenia and former Member of the European Parliament, and Professor Tomáš Halík of Charles University and President of the Czech Christian Academy.

Currently the EU is considering several new accession requests, including that of Ukraine and Moldova, and after having granted official candidate status to Georgia.

COMECE’s next assembly is scheduled to take place this fall in Brussels, from Nov. 27-29, 2024.

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