Leaders of the 27 nations soon to comprise the European Union gathered in Rome on Saturday to celebrate the Treaty of Rome’s 60th anniversary. The compact, signed by just six nations, created a European Economic Community (EEC) that gradually evolved into the EU. Among those present inside the Sala Degli Orazi e Curiazi of Rome’s Palazzo dei Conservatori was Pope Francis, who told the heads of state that a successful union must uphold the importance of development and employment, the principle of subsidiarity, the perils of populism, and traditional notions of human dignity rooted in the Judeo-Christian worldview.
Pope Francis, the first pope born outside Europe in 1,300 years, showed his keen grasp of the continent’s destiny, saying that its fate is inextricably tied up with the Christian faith. The EU’s founders, he said, shared a common “consciousness that ‘at the origin of European civilization there is Christianity,’ without which the Western values of dignity, freedom, and justice would prove largely incomprehensible.” Increasingly out-of-place in secularist Europe, people of faith have noted the Christian roots of modern human rights, as well as the potential for the EU to end up “adrift” by forsaking them. Pope Francis intensified that warning. “When a body loses its sense of direction,” he said, “it experiences a regression and, in the long run, risks dying.”
Emphasizing faith was particularly appropriate, given that the Treaty of Rome was signed on March 25, 1957. March 25 was formerly New Year’s Day in much of Europe (including in the United States, until 1752), because, as the Feast of the Annunciation, it marked the first moment of Christ’s Incarnation and the salvation of the world. The EU flag of 12 stars on a blue field – adopted on December 8, 1955 – is said to have been inspired by Marian imagery. Yet four decades later, the EU agonized over whether to acknowledge Christianity as a part of its history.
Due to the historic influence of Christianity, Pope Francis said, the founders built the EEC upon "the pillars" of "the centrality of man, effective solidarity, openness to the world, the pursuit of peace and development, [and] openness to the future."
It was clear, then, from the outset, that the heart of the European political project could only be man himself. … The founding fathers remind us that Europe is…a way of understanding man based on his transcendent and inalienable dignity, as something more than simply a sum of rights to defend or claims to advance.
The pope made a welcome appeal for EU leaders to devolve power to the lowest practicable level, urging them to embrace “a spirit of solidarity and subsidiarity,” which alone “can make the Union as a whole develop harmoniously.” The absence of subsidiarity accounts for “the sense that there is a growing ‘split’ between the citizenry and the European institutions, which are often perceived as distant and inattentive." He also presented it as the antidote to rising tide of populism – which he described as mere “egotism” – currently cresting over the transatlantic sphere, from Donald Trump and Brexit, to the popularity of Geert Wilders and Marine LePen.
He then turned to a series of economic themes:
Europe finds new hope when she invests in development and in peace. Development is not the result of a combination of various systems of production. It has to do with the whole human being: the dignity of labour, decent living conditions, access to education and necessary medical care. “Development is the new name of peace,” said Pope Paul VI, for there is no true peace whenever people are cast aside or forced to live in dire poverty. There is no peace without employment and the prospect of earning a dignified wage. There is no peace in the peripheries of our cities, with their rampant drug abuse and violence.
Europe finds new hope when she is open to the future. When she is open to young people, offering them serious prospects for education and real possibilities for entering the work force. When she invests in the family, which is the first and fundamental cell of society. When she respects the consciences and the ideals of her citizens. When she makes it possible to have children without the fear of being unable to support them. When she defends life in all its sacredness. (Emphases in original.)
Touching on each briefly:
Development: References to a supranational government that “invests” in development recalls the tone of Populorum Progressio, the encyclical signed by Pope Paul VI 50 years ago that advocated higher taxation to fund government-to-government wealth transfers in the name of development. But as the producers of Poverty Inc. note, no nation has ever grown wealthy from foreign aid. The Catechism of the Catholic Church restricts “[d]irect aid” to “immediate, extraordinary needs caused by natural catastrophes, epidemics, and the like”; it cannot “provide a lasting solution to a country’s needs.” True "development multiplies material goods," it says. Nations have prospered as investment allowed domestic industries to flourish and engage in international trade, a process that has allowed more than one billion people to escape poverty in just 20 years.
Employment: “There is no peace without employment,” the pope said, which requires that European youth be given “real possibilities for entering the work force.” To accomplish this, EU leaders must confront an economic culture that emphasizes security at the price of growth and dynamism. As a result of their social assistance state policies, the Eurozone’s unemployment rate fell below 10 percent for the first time in seven years just last October, and an increasing number of young people – including 80 percent of new hires in France – can find only temporary jobs, delaying family formation.
Tariffs and trade barriers: Pope Francis approvingly quoted one of the founders of the EEC (French Minister of Foreign Affairs C. Pineau), who said: “Surely the countries about to unite … do not have the intention of isolating themselves from the rest of the world and surrounding themselves with insurmountable barriers.” Although not in an explicitly economic context, one must wonder how that phrase applies to the Treaty of Rome, which fashioned the EEC into a customs union that now imposes tariffs as high as 18 percent on imported food. The same day, the 27 EU leaders signed the Rome Declaration that listed the “unprecedented challenges” posed by “protectionism,” while promoting “free and fair trade.” (They further vowed to provide “unparalleled levels of social protection and welfare" in order to combat “social and economic inequalities.”) Ironically, it is UK Prime Minister Theresa May – who did not attend the ceremony – who is now focusing on expanded free trade agreements and lower barriers possible through WTO membership, as British free market think tanks encourage the UK to rid itself of tariff and regulatory burdens imposed by EU membership. Paradoxically, it is the post-Brexit UK that holds itself out as a “more global Britain.”
If the pope’s remarks stimulate critical thought on these issues, it will be a blessing to all the people of Europe. You can read his full speech here.