Giving Europe new hope
A climate of fear and growing individualism is spreading through Europe. Pope Francis counters this with a message of hope and optimism.
Among the German words adopted into other European languages is “Angst”. “German Angst” points to that nation’s general tendency to brood, as well as its characteristic fear of the future. This fear seems to have spread throughout the continent – fear of unemployment and impoverishment, fear of deflation and loss of savings, fear of foreign infiltration and fear of a new war in Europe. Add to this the fear of the consequences of dangerous climate change and of Islamic terrorism, and the list continues.
In their social dimension these fears are justified on good grounds. Unemployment and far-reaching erosion of the social security systems, above all in the southern states of Europe, call social cohesion into question. Youth unemployment remains a persistent scandal. When Jean-Claude Juncker, on taking office, described the new European Commission as the “Last-chance Commission”, he seemed to be well aware of the seriousness of the situation.
One consequence of the many forms of “angst” now showing up around the countries of Europe is a growing individualism. A perceived threat leads to a withdrawal from the public sphere and a defence of one’s own interests. The flipside of this is growing loneliness among people, something that Pope Francis spoke about forcefully in his address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Populists on both the right and left stoke up and instrumentalise these fears, and people look round for scapegoats. One of these scapegoats is “Europe”. The same examples of over-regulation and over-bureaucratisation are constantly brought forward, but there are no rational grounds for a generalised mistrust of the institutions of the EU. Political disenchantment and contempt of politicians at home are transferred to the European level; yet it is becoming increasingly evident that solutions are needed at European level for a growing number of problem areas such as dangerous climate change, migration policy, foreign policy and national security.
A frequent complaint is that today’s Europe lacks “an identity-building narrative”. The origins of European unification lie in the achievement of reconciliation and peace after hundreds of years of war in Europe. But for the young generation of today this is a historical fact that is taken for granted. A Facebook competition held in connection with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union in 2012 was won by 23-year-old Larkin Zahra from Malta with the following tweet: “My grandparents would have said ‘a dream’. My parents would have said ‘a process’. I say that it’s my everyday reality.”
Fear is known to be a poor counsellor. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said that the world belongs to those who invest the greatest hope in it. And so Pope Francis’s speech before the European Parliament on 25 November 2014 focused above all on giving European citizens a message of hope and encouragement. In the media there has been far too much weight attached to the critical aspects of his address. On the contrary, the Pope expressed his confidence “that our problems can become powerful forces for unity in working to overcome all those fears which Europe – together with the entire world – is presently experiencing.” He devoutly connected this hope with the Lord “who turns evil into good and death into life.”
Martin Maier SJ
Translated from the original text in German