Non-European Pope mounts defense of EU amid coronavirus ‘paralysis’

Pope Francis, despite being the first non-European pontiff since the eighth century, is perhaps the most vocal leader on the Old Continent today making a principled defense of the European Union.

News Analysis

ROME – Italy today marks day 46 of its nationwide lockdown caused by the coronavirus, which may help explain the impatience with which many Italians view today’s video summit of EU leaders to discuss a shared approach to recovery from the pandemic – a summit which, according to news reports, will not even be “decision-making” in nature.

“All this is an ongoing process,” one EU official said in advance, so today’s virtual gathering “won’t give all the answers on the numbers of the next EU budget or on what innovative instruments will be fielded to respond.”

The fact that the EU is almost two months into arguably the greatest crisis in its 63-year history and still cannot agree on a common strategy has generated wide frustration, especially among southern European states such as Italy and Spain which have been disproportionately harder hit with respect to northern nations such as Germany and the Netherlands.

The most immediate political result is that it’s no longer just Europe’s right-wing populists, such as Marine Le Pen of France or Matteo Salvini of Italy, who are questioning whether the EU has a future.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy, for example, recently gave an interview to the TV service of the German newspaper Bild in which he declared, “If Europe isn’t up to the challenge, then we’ll have to abandon the European dream and say that everyone acts for themselves.”

(It’s no accident, by the way, that Conte chose a German outlet to deliver that message, since his principal antagonist has been Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel.)

Conte has been pushing the EU to create what are called “coronabonds,” which would be instruments for underwriting the new debt member states are compelled to undertake in order to stabilize their economies, offer short-term relief to unemployed workers and rescue companies at risk of bankruptcy due to the crisis but which are otherwise solvent and productive.

Germany and the Netherlands to date have balked, with Germany instead pushing reliance on the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), a program created in 2012 in response to the European debt crisis that erupted during the global crisis of 2008-2009, which saw several EU member states, including Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Cyprus, unable to pay their debts and in need of immediate help.

Conte, however, has objected that the ESM “comes with strings attached,” since in some instances its loans can be conditional on financial restructuring programs. Conte argues that Italy’s need for cash right now isn’t because of irresponsible fiscal policies but an unforeseen public health crisis.

Current frustrations with the EU in nations such as Italy and Spain over the coronavirus response compound pre-existing grievances regarding Europe’s migrant and refugee crisis, where states bordering the Mediterranean have long felt they’ve been left to carry an unfair share of the burden of caring for new arrivals to the Eurozone, even though many of those refugees eventually want to move further north.

In other words, the logjam over coronavirus relief risks turning anti-EU sentiment from a populist minority cause in places such as Italy into mainstream, institutional sentiment, voiced not just by demagogues and mavericks but by the country’s respected centrist leadership.

All of which brings us to Pope Francis, who, despite being the first non-European pontiff since the eighth century, is perhaps the most vocal leader on the Old Continent today making a principled defense of the EU.

In his daily livestreamed Mass from the Vatican’s Domus Santa Marta, the residence where he lives, Francis Wednesday prayed for the union.

“In these times in which we need so much unity among us, among nations, let us pray today for Europe, so that Europe manages to have this unity, this fraternal unity of which the founding fathers of the European Union dreamed,” he said.

Those remarks built on Francis’s Urbi et Orbi message on Easter Sunday, when he said “the European Union [is] facing an epochal challenge, on which will depend not only its future but that of the whole world”.

Francis’s key allies in Europe have also been pressing the case, acknowledging frustrations with the inability of the EU to get its act together but suggesting the right response isn’t to bail on the union but to beef it up.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, President of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), recently complained that the EU seems “paralyzed.”

Failures on the refugee crisis, Hollerich said, “have inflicted deep wounds on the European ideal,” and said a similar disappointment on the pandemic “can become the fatal wound” to the whole idea of European unity.

RELATED: Cardinal fears coronavirus could be end of European Union

Italian economist Stefano Zamagni, a key papal advisor on economic and social policy, recently said the coronavirus has revealed the “impotence” of the EU and called for its powers to be strengthened.

“We must return to valuing the fundamental principles of a community,” he said.

RELATED: Papal economist says EU must do more to help members during pandemic

It’s important to remember that Catholicism is the world’s oldest functioning globalized institution, and theologically the Church is universalist in principle. It’s supported the UN from the beginning, as well as the EU, the African Union, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States and other attempts at trans-national solidarity, just as it’s promoted the same trajectory within the Church with COMECE, the Episcopal Conference of Latin America (CELAM), the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC) and so on.

As for Francis, he led the church in Argentina during that country’s “Great Depression” in 1998-2002, and he understands how individual states often are dependent on larger institutions during moments of crisis. When those institutions are weak or unresponsive, therefore, his instinctive response isn’t to walk away but to reform.

Heretofore, when Francis has spoken in defense of Europe it’s been presumed he was speaking largely to populist Eurosceptics and voters who reward them. Now, however, it seems more likely he’s talking to the Giuseppe Contes of the world, mainstream leaders seemingly tempted to throw up their hands and give up.

It’s not at all clear whether the pope actually can save the EU from itself – but perhaps the most remarkable thing is that it seems to be a pontiff “from the end of the earth,” about as far away from Europe as it’s possible to be, who’s reminding his adopted continent of its ideals at a time when disenchantment with them seems to be on the verge of going mainstream.

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.

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