Through the eyes of the poor
There is no doubt that the gulf between rich and poor in Europe is widening. Poverty is on the increase: in 2014, there were 119 million Europeans threatened with poverty, and the trend is growing. It affects individual Member States, where people in precarious situations are put under increasing pressure and risk sliding into poverty – and it is not only single-parent families and young people with poor education or no education at all who are at risk. Increasingly, it also applies to people with better qualifications, who have lost their jobs and (for various reasons, such as age) find it difficult to get another.
It is especially true for young people who find themselves in the vicious circle of (unpaid) internships, without any real prospect of any (permanent, properly paid) job that will enable them to support themselves and start a family. For this reason in particular, so-called “middle class” people are afraid above all that their prosperity is only temporary and they could lose it at any moment.
The gulf between rich and poor also runs between Member States. At the risk of sounding provocative, someone who may justifiably be considered “poor” in Germany or Austria is not truly “poor” when compared with those living in poverty in Romania or Bulgaria.
Since its inception, the European Union has used a wide range of instruments such as cohesion funds and structural funds to try and bridge this gulf, to bring the poorer countries up to the living standards of the richer ones. It has enjoyed some sweeping successes, even though the truth is emerging that the impact of these instruments is getting smaller and smaller.
For many people, the benefits are still trickling through too slowly or insufficiently. In the central and eastern European Member States above all, people perceive themselves as “poor” in comparison with their neighbours to the west, and expect to achieve the same standards of living as quickly as possible. This feeling of not getting their fair share is also one of the causes of their reluctance to accept refugees from outside Europe.
As an antidote to institutional tunnel vision, it helps to look into the eyes of those who should actually be empowered to act for themselves – in our case, the poor themselves. We speak far too often ABOUT the poor and seek solutions FOR THEM – all too rarely do we speak WITH them and seek solutions TOGETHER WITH THEM. It could be that our actions are part of the problem, not of the solution: our way of life, our lack of consideration, our egotism could be among the causes of their poverty. This sometimes hinders honest dialogue, because we risk being called into question, but Christians should not shy away from the issue.
For this reason, the COMECE Bishops have not limited themselves to participation in discussions and meetings with politicians and the representatives of NGOs. They have in fact been visiting organisations that are devoted to working with the poor and the excluded. These meetings in small groups, eating together and holding conversations, have become the touchstone for the sustainability of the solutions that were discussed during the study days. They have opened our eyes.
Translated from the original text in German
The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Office.