Sunday 23. January 2022
#167 - January 2014


Europe: “Everything starts with trust!”


The more that Europeans can rely on decisions being respected in Europe, the greater the trust that can be regained.

Europeinfos publishes here the greater part of the speech delivered by the Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Dr Robert Zollitsch, at the annual reception hosted by the Catholic Bureau Berlin and the Brussels Bureau of EKD (Evangelical Church in Germany) held in Brussels on 25 November 2013.

Everything starts with trust. This applies to every human relationship. It is eminently clear that there cannot be any friendship or, in particular, any loving relationship without the element of trust. All of our individual daily actions are based on trust in our fellow human beings – for example, we depend on the pilot to fly the plane safely to Brussels, and we rely on the garage mechanics to tighten the nuts properly when they change the tyres on our car. We rely on everyone to obey the law, and we rely on the state to enforce the law. Everything starts with trust: this applies equally to all business relations as well as to our society, the different groups and organisations and to our political community.


We must therefore be worried by a situation of declining social trust. Various social institutions have been battling the loss of people’s trust in the last few years. This involves politicians, parties and political institutions; it concerns trade unions, federations, the churches and us as their representatives. Many of the points of reference towards which we have oriented our private lives and according to which we have structured and organised our community have been undermined over the past few years. This results in not only a decline in traditional standards and benchmarks in the private lives of individuals, but also in a loss of stability in our community in overall terms, given that trust is the basic currency of our living together in society.


Right now the European Union finds itself in a crisis of trust and confidence. According to a Eurobarometer survey conducted in the spring of 2013, EU citizens’ trust and confidence in the European Union has fallen to 29%. [...] Both the national polities and the European union of sovereign national states exist on trust. The European project cannot go forward without the trust of Europe’s citizens.


May I remind you that the unification of Europe was, from the outset, a promise, an undertaking, a vision. At a time when Europe lay literally in ruins in material terms after World War II and had also hit rock bottom morally with the Holocaust instigated and pursued by the National Socialists, the European idea was then a promise with a positive aura: the intention was for freedom and common prosperity to emerge for the people of this continent founded on peace between the peoples of Europe and proceeding from the principles of the rule of law and democracy. The assurances given in association with the unification of Europe were peace, freedom, prosperity as well as the rule of law and democracy. This constituted the basic assumption for people to place their trust in European cooperation. In retrospect, we may ask whether the promises of European integration have been honoured. Do we have confirmation of the basic assumptions that were the prerequisite for the leap of faith of Europe’s citizens?



No one will deny that the unification of Europe has honoured its promise of reconciliation and peace. Never before has there been such a long period of peace between the peoples and the Member States that make up the European Union as the period after World War II’s end. European integration has been primarily responsible for this, and that is why the European Union was rightly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year. The European Union has been earning our trust for over 50 years.


We should not grow tired of continually emphasising this peace-making and reconciliatory role of the EU, because these days it is anything but self-evident. [...] I am firmly convinced, however, that keeping the peace will remain one of the EU’s core objectives. Not because there is any pressing threat of war in Europe but rather because the EU ensures that the Member States and their populations are constantly in dialogue and negotiation with each other. Just think of the absurd dispute over Gibraltar last summer! Considering that European countries involved are civilised, I would not like in any way to argue that this conflict had a risk of developing into a war. However, when two countries sit together round a table in Brussels, this mere action already contained the potential for escalation. For this reason, we should continue to value and appreciate the peace-keeping function of European integration.



European integration has also fulfilled the promise of freedom. Through the basic freedoms of the internal market and its civil liberties, it has demonstrated and spread a liberal system, thus safeguarding our freedom. At the same time, European integration has been a part of the process that resulted in overcoming the division of Europe and which brought freedom to our eastern neighbours as well as our compatriots in the GDR.



The promise of prosperity has come true for many people in Europe. The assurance of prosperity has probably contributed more to the attractiveness of the EU for new members than all the other promises. The European Community was a story of economic success from the very outset. Way back in 1957 it was stated in the Treaty of Rome that the aim of forming the European Community was “as the essential objective of their efforts the constant improvement of the living and working conditions of their peoples”, thus improving the individual’s actual living environment. The European internal market has made a major contribution towards establishing and developing the prosperity and well-being of EU citizens over a period of several decades.



Last, but not least, Europe has also delivered the promised rule of law and democracy. It is not the law of the strongest but rather the strength of the law that safeguards peace and freedom in our countries. Democratic processes are both a prerequisite and a demand. When Member States embrace the European Union, this means that domestic policy is no longer a purely internal matter. Instead, it is now pursued and, if necessary, also sanctioned at the European level. This evolution can be seen in the discussions conducted in recent years on the involvement of radical parties in government (see Slovakia), on the exercise of power (as in Romania and Hungary), or in relation to individual legal and political measures, such as the pressure exerted by France to expel the Roma.


Doubts about the promises

Despite this positive interim balance, the promises given by Europe are today being questioned in a number of different ways. As successfully as the vision of a united Europe has been able to assert itself, doubts are surfacing with regard to the promises of European integration.


Those who criticise the Union rightly reproach it for the disputes and differences arising in the course of the financial market crisis. What can be said today about the EU’s promise of peace in view of the lapses and aberrations occurring in the media and among the public in the last two years? In the crisis surrounding the financial markets, clichés and prejudices long believed to have been overcome are rearing their ugly heads again. While Southern Europeans are generally regarded as lazy in Germany, thousands of people protest in Greece against the head of the German government who is pictured wearing a Nazi uniform. Parties whose electoral messages are filled with slogans against the European partners are achieving successes at the polls in a large number of Member States. It is for this very reason that I am concerned about how the peoples of Europe relate to each other. Money and friendship don’t mix, as the saying goes. However, in no way does this mean that the relationship has to be reversed. Stirring up clichés and serving up national stereotypes are not only unproductive, they also turn nations against one other. It really pains me to see that such developments have increased significantly over the past months and years of the crisis in Europe. They destroy the trust that has been built up so patiently and carefully, the very trust that we urgently need within Europe. You really have to take seriously those people who are openly wondering whether holding onto European integration is nowadays still genuinely a guarantee of peace. Or does it instead foment discord among the peoples of Europe?


The situation on the external borders of the Union is even more precarious, often involving matters of life and death. We are all still suffering from the shock of the Lampedusa disaster that cost the lives of countless refugees. [...] Although it is, of course, legitimate for nation states and communities of nations to control access to their territories, the current refugee and migration policy focuses one-sidedly on overseeing and stemming immigration. The price exacted by this policy is too high. It is a price paid only by those who do not see any way out other than entrusting their lives to human traffickers, who are only too often without any scruples.


Unfortunately, many people today no longer associate the promise of freedom with the European Union. They see Europe as a freedom-based project to only a limited extent. For many, Brussels has become a synonym for ‘paternalism’. A good part of this development certainly does go back to the popular game of always finding in the first instance someone else to blame, usually Brussels. Nevertheless, European policy-making also has to face the fact that it might also be contributing to this perception through its exaggeratedly petty rules and regulations. When we see the extent to which philosophers, authors and intellectuals - from Jürgen Habermas to Robert Menasse and Hans-Magnus Enzensberger – are now examining questions of European integration, this emphasises the significance and importance of the European project, but also highlights the severity of the crisis.


Maybe the biggest concern for the European Union at present is fulfilling the promise of prosperity. The crises of the last few years have broken the chain of development towards every-increasing prosperity, a development we perceive as continuous and which we often regard as self-evident. The citizens of Europe are unsettled – for different reasons that partly reflect the interests of their respective countries of origin. The citizens of the debtor nations are now losing their trust and confidence in the European Union as a guarantor of prosperity and, in the end, of social peace [...].



Solidarity must not be reduced to the level of transferring money around. It is legitimate also to expect returns on government aid as, according to the principle of solidarity, the strong demonstrate solidarity with the weak and the weak with the strong, with the stronger enabling the weaker to make their contribution towards the common good, while the weaker only avail themselves of the solidarity they need and make the contribution possible for them. But then we must not lay obligations on those Member States that have run into financial difficulties and depend on the solidarity of their neighbours to initiate economic measures and structural reforms beyond what is responsible and justifiable. Yet it is not only the weaker shoulders that must not be unduly burdened. Stronger shoulders that are able to carry more should still not be subjected to excessive loads. There is a fine line of balance between the European Member States with regard to overcoming the current crisis.


This is illustrated by the fact that doubts are even arising about the European promise of the rule of law in the course of the various rescue measures. Many of the citizens of the Member States that assume financial co-responsibility for other states in the form of guarantees, loans and direct assistance are unsettled. [...] One of the crucial factors for building trust in a political community is compliance with one’s self-set rules and any promises made. Although this may seem obvious, it is not self-evident. With regard to the European Union, I recall, for example, the numerous infractions against the Stability and Growth Pact, first by Germany and France in 2002 and 2003 and subsequently by many other Member States. The sanction mechanisms at European level have undoubtedly been improved since then. However, it is only automatic penalty measures that are likely to be able to prevent any bending of the rules according to short-term political expediency. Furthermore, it must, in general terms, be a matter of restoring trust in the individual Member States or also a European community of responsibility via better coordination of the economic and fiscal policies pursued by the Member States of the European Union and via more effective supervision at the European level. [...]


Trust at all levels

The more trusting I am, the more trust can grow: what is needed is more trust in the European partners as well as in the other European peoples and states. However, the European institutions also need the trust of the citizens. Equally, those holding office in the EU deserve our trust, as do the candidates for the new European Parliament to be elected. At the same time, confirmation of this trust is also required in order to be able to repeatedly gain new trust. This needs greater commitment on the part of the European Union. The more that Europeans can rely on decisions and rulings being adhered to in Europe, the greater the trust that can be regained. German President Joachim Gauck concluded his speech delivered in February 2013 with the following appeal to us all: “More Europe calls for more courage from everyone! What Europe needs now is not doubters but standard-bearers, not ditherers but people who are prepared to knuckle down, not those who simply go with the flow but active players.”



This quotation, this call, Ladies and Gentlemen, draws my attention to the European elections to be held next May. The proliferation of poverty in many EU states, the high rate of unemployment as well as the radical change and sometimes collapse of social structures are leading to increasing social unease and a search for someone to blame elsewhere. One of the consequences of this is the increasing appeal of populist and even nationalistic movements in many Member States of the European Union. However, Europe’s experience of this misguided path has been extremely sorrowful in the past. For this reason, I am certain that the solution to our problems does not lie in returning to narrowly defined national statehood. What we have to do, rather, is trust more in our community in Europe and work together in building European unity. The European Parliament is the most important institution able to collaborate in accomplishing this task. That is why it is so urgently necessary to strengthen the parliament through participation in the European elections and not to allow the influence of those opposing European cooperation to grow any further. I hope there will be a high turnout for the European elections as this will also result in democratic legitimacy of the European Parliament.


Community method

Such legitimacy is important for strengthening the democratic processes in the EU. Times of crisis are, it is said, always times of executive authority. For this reason, there has often been talk of an “over-summitization” of European politics. Instead, it could also be referred to as the increasingly turning away from the Community method, the original European decision-making process involving all three European institutions. Crucial European decisions over the last few years, such as the rescue packages, the European Stabilisation Mechanism (ESM) and the Fiscal Pact, have materialised – out of necessity – in the form of understandings and agreements between the Member States without any involvement of the directly elected European Parliament. While having every understanding for the path chosen, this decision-making process would not, in view of the far-reaching – in particular, social – consequences of such instruments, appear to be easily reconcilable with the spirit of the Treaty of Lisbon, by virtue of that treaty having precisely extended the co-decision powers of the European Parliament and put it on an equal footing with the Council of Ministers in legislative terms!


In addition, there is a connection between the intergovernmental decision-making process in the European Union and the strengthening of nation-state tendencies. Reference had already been made to this by a “Panel of Eminent Persons” appointed by COMECE in 2007. According to the panel, “the intergovernmental method carries the implicit risk of paralysis and nationalistic aberrations on account of focusing emphasis on sometimes differing national interests.” According to the Panel of Eminent Persons, “The ‘Community method’, on the other hand, is geared towards the European common good and not so much directed towards balancing national interests.” Although the European common good includes the interests of the Member States, it does also go beyond these. It is only through the participation of the European Parliament in the European legislative processes and through the involvement of the European Commission as the guardian of the treaties that the orientation of European politics towards the European common good can be ensured.


For this reason, it is precisely the European elections to be held next year that offer the opportunity to strengthen the trust of Europe’s citizens in the decisions taken at European level. It would certainly be helpful in this regard if European topics were at the centre of the campaign in these European elections and if EU citizens were shown clearly what alternatives are open to them with regard to decisions at the European level. The nomination of Europe-wide top candidates already started by the parties also helps to put ‘faces’ to the election manifestos, thus enhancing visibility of the alternatives for the electorate.


A real community of values

Although strengthening the mechanisms for compliance with the law, gearing reforms to the present and future welfare and well-being of the people affected, preserving the connection between decision-making and responsibility and reinforcing democratic strands of legitimacy in the European decision-making processes are crucial measures for building trust, the belief in mechanisms, institutional structures, processes and decision-making procedures – important as these may be – falls short of the mark in the final analysis. “Neither a more or less effective economic union nor a bureaucratic body of norms that regulate coexistence can ever fully satisfy people’s expectations for Europe,” Pope Benedict XVI once stated. “Rather, the tap-roots of a solid European reciprocity, exempt from crises, are embedded in the convictions and common values of the Continent’s Christian history and humanist historical tradition. Without authentic, common community values, it is impossible to build any reliable community of rights, which instead is what people expect.” [...]


The European community of values has been focused on the promises of European integration: peace and freedom, prosperity, the rule of law and democracy. Although these values continue to be a promise for us Europeans, they are by no means a foregone conclusion. The current crisis has clearly shown us that. If the EU wants to strengthen its legitimacy, the level of commitment in Europe must be raised. This includes dedication to European cohesion as well as the Member States’ own contribution. In this sense, the quest for European reconciliation and unity is constantly and repeatedly dependent upon our active input and involvement, the active involvement of as many people as possible in their respective surroundings and areas of responsibility, because Europe lives very much on variety and diversity, i.e. we are enriched by the different perspectives and our horizons broadened accordingly.


Dialogue and encounter

We can then experience what Pope Francis said in Rio de Janeiro on 27 July in his meeting with political and social decision-makers: “When leaders in various fields ask me for advice, my response is always the same: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. The only way for individuals, families and societies to grow, the only way for the life of peoples to progress, is via the culture of encounter, a culture in which all have something good to give and all can receive something good in return. Others always have something to give me, if we know how to approach them in a spirit of openness and without prejudice. This open spirit, without prejudice, I would describe as “social humility”, which is what favours dialogue. […] Today, either we take the risk of dialogue, we risk the culture of encounter, or we all fall; this is the path that will bear fruit.” Thus says Pope Francis, who knows only too well that successful dialogue and encounter are a prerequisite for trust. European integration also needs dialogue and encounter by bringing people together. European integration lives on trust, because everything starts with trust.


Archbishop Dr. Robert Zollitsch

Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference


Translated from the original text in German


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Editors-in-Chief: Martin Maier SJ

Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.