Europe has come a great course since the Treaty of Rome (1958) but one could say that the European Union has exponentially developed during the last two decades. The great enlargement of the European Union in 2004 and the second one in 2007 created a multi-cultural, multi-religious, and diverse amalgam among the members of the European Union. At the same time, the relations between the states forming the European Union deepened with a common economic policy and the Eurozone (1999). In addition to this, substantial progress has been made toward the promotion of common values on different matters for the 28 member-states.
Nevertheless, the European Union’s course has not been without turbulence, having to face an ongoing economic crisis, with its consequences such as the shaping of a two-speed Europe, the deterioration of living standards, increased inequity, the widening of the gap between rich and poor, the refugee and migrant crisis, “Brexit”, the rise of populism, lack of common foreign and security policy, lack of transparency, are some of the major problems that the European Union has been challenged to resolve for the well-being of its citizens.
As European citizens we are seeking a more Eurocentric strategy based on the common good, that will safeguard the future of the European Union, in such a way that the cohesion of the societies will be built on common European values. European values are the rudder for the ship called “European Union” which ensures that we shall reach upon proper solutions to European questions nowadays.
As the European Commission stated “…the European Union was hit by the worst global recession for decades”. It was rather easy to predict that the financial crisis, which started in 2008, would generate new challenges for the European Union that would affect all levels of European life. As a consequence of the incomplete financial structure, inadequate cohesion, and lack of solidarity among the European Member States, the impact of this major crisis was felt almost immediately. Austerity measures imposed by the European Union and –in some cases– by the International Monetary Fund on certain Member States, increased inequality, widened the gap between rich and poor, and triggered recession. In many European countries, while the cost of gas, electricity, water, food and housing increased, social assistance benefits were not adjusted accordingly. The rise in unemployment and homelessness, together with the decline of working conditions and living standards have led the citizens to a loss of confidence and aspiration, especially among the youth. Many people, who used to have trust in the social system and felt secure in the past, are now struggling to survive well below the poverty line.
Insufficient consideration by Member States of European values such as “solidarity”, combined with the decisions taken to handle the financial crisis, had an immediate impact on the society of the European Union and its already fragile cohesion. People were treated merely as numbers and this led to unsocial and unfair decision-making. But if we look deeper, European values are based on a cultural and spiritual foundation. For Christians, the economic crisis was first and foremost a spiritual crisis. Member States, which were once built on Christian values and principles, started abandoning these values and principles and focused exclusively on economic growth. Growth blinded the genuine cause of man and became the cause of his existence. Without repentance and without a change in mentality and the way of perceiving life and its actual cause, then, even if economic recovery were to be achieved, the economic crisis could still come back and hit the society even harder. This is why the Orthodox Church must not only engage in handing out aid to the people in need, but also exercise its primary cause of existence, which is the salvation of souls.
At the same time, over the past few years, we have been witnessing the unfolding of an unprecedented phenomenon in recent European history: the arrival at the borders of Europe, and in its very heart, of hundreds of thousands of people. These people have been fleeing their home countries that have been devastated by prolonged military, civil, inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts. Confronted with the reality of human suffering, as Disciples of Christ, we are called to wholeheartedly help alleviate the suffering of the innocent victims of these conflicts. Each refugee is the image of Christ, and this compels us to act in a way that protects this innate dignity. On the one hand, from a Christological perspective, migration reveals how Christ identifies with refugees, having been one Himself. Christ was not merely a refugee, but He who came from heaven and took the nature of a human being to become our Saviour.
Nevertheless and despite the theological aspect, it is well known that there are manifold implications of receiving such a high number of refugees in Europe. Let us not forget that, regardless of the fact that the European population has increased, on a global level it has decreased from 13.5% in 1960 to 7.5% in 2008. The implications of migration in society, such as the demographic shifts in a country, the introduction of new cultural customs and new religious traditions, are challenges confronting European citizens today. Europeans compare these new customs and traditions with their own system of values, ignoring the fact that they are faced with new ideologies that involve political, economic and social elements that create a new dimension of cohesion, rather unusual to what Europe had so far been used to.
It is Europe’s duty to remind immigrants that Europe is not only about claiming rights, but also about fulfilling responsibilities. At the same time Europe should not give up its own traditions, its own identity. Clearly, Europe should reflect deeper on the need for a more coherent and visionary neighbourhood and external action policy. The European Union should work towards the formation of a common policy for the Middle East, where devastation, extreme poverty, hunger, disease, homelessness, and poor education and environmental standards prevail. The aim should be to create the necessary conditions that would enable the hundreds of thousands of refugees to safely return to their homeland.
The pressure felt in European society as a result of migration, combined with the frustration caused through the financial crisis, the high rates of unemployment and the security crackdown, sparked a wave of populism and Euroscepticism: another challenge that Europe has been confronted with. Populism, a new political style, where people play the main role in the society and the elite is excluded, has grown roots in Southern Europe by the Left and in Northern Europe by the Right. In disrespect of common European values, populist groups strive to create totalitarian national super-states within the territory of the European Union. As President Barroso pointed out “…in times of crisis …populist forces …have a better ground …to manipulate feelings. Feelings of fear.” While some countries in the north would fear any form of social and economic problems that a crisis might bring to them, countries in southern Europe have been struggling with these problems for many years now. The role of the European Union should have been to shape co-production and fair distribution. The European pillar of social rights could be further strengthened to reaffirm the promotion of some values that “the EU must stand up for”, as President Juncker underscored. These include: education, training and life-long learning, equal opportunities, active support to employment, health-care for all, healthy, safe and well-adapted working environment, data protection and minimum income.
Another important value that we as Orthodox Christians consider to be of great importance is the free Sunday for our European citizens. Sunday is the time to be devoted to the whole family, time to go to Church, time to meet friends, to socialize, to engage with the community and undertake social and volunteer work. These activities are elements of social cohesion that have built up Europe for decades. Religions are called to play a significant role by promoting solidarity and initiatives of cooperation both amongst the faithful and the unaffiliated citizens and vis-à-vis the European institutions. Such initiatives would facilitate an improved handling of the numerous complex problems threatening European and global security, and would contribute to the creation of the future framework for “A Europe that protects”.
In view of the upcoming elections of 2019, we must bear in mind that although 62% of European Union citizens voted in 1979, voters’ turnout for the European Parliament elections in 2014 experienced a substantial decrease to just over 43%, despite the enlargement of the European Union since 2004, 2007 and 2013. Evidently, citizens react to the call for participation in democratic procedures with negativity or hesitation, to say the least.
European Union calls upon its citizens to actively participate in the elections for the European Parliament, but it does not seem to listen to the electoral body. On average, 68% of the electoral body participate in national elections, when as we mentioned earlier only 43% participated in the 2014 European Parliament elections. The lack of trust towards the European institutions goes hand in hand with the lack of information about their mission. Perhaps, reforming the way of voting on the basis of the Swiss model, where each elector can vote horizontally across parties on the basis of the personal merit of candidates, thus creating a more diversity-oriented democracy, would challenge politicians, as the dominant role of the traditional political parties would be put in question. If we are interested in a stronger Europe, we may wish to remember the words by Indira Gandhi that “winning or losing of the election is less important than strengthening the country”.
“Public consultations”, a form of negotiation between the European Union and the Society of Citizens has often proven to be inefficient. A striking example of this has been the European Citizens’ Initiative “One of Us”: Nearly two million signatures submitted to the European Commission demanded the halt of funding for the elimination of human embryos for scientific purposes and also the halt of promoting abortion as a means to combat poverty and disease in third countries. The request of the European citizens was not taken into account by the European Commission, as it set the petition aside without forwarding the issue for discussion to the European Parliament.
The above are some examples suggesting that current democratic practices in the European Union may be subject to further improvement. However, the Orthodox Church strongly approves of “authentic” democracy, defined as democracy under the rule of law and founded on the correct understanding of human dignity. On the other hand, self-styled democracies sometimes fall short of this ideal. And a democracy without Christian values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism. European Union is not another institution founded to safeguard individual and collective economic interests. It is rather the recipient of the aspirations of hundreds of millions of people who live in their own countries and wish to be part of a larger family of nations working towards a common good. This common good includes the enhancement of social standards, dignity in life and security in society. Voting gives importance to the voice of the citizens. It is the way we participate in a civil society. It is the way we teach our children how to be citizens. It is the way to form our future.
As a final note to my speech, I would like to emphasize the importance of the common European Culture and Christian Tradition and how this should nicely blend with all the other achievements of the European Union, be it the Eurozone, the Single Market, the free movement of people, the enlargement, etc. Despite the fact that the European Union has experienced numerous shocks during the last decade, the elements that hold it together still exist. It is up to us to improve and build on these elements, so that the European Union, as one of the major international players, becomes more cohesive, more efficient and more receptive to the needs of its citizens. History has always proven that nations can derive their strength through unity. A united Europe is now called upon to transform its differences into strength and to strive for the achievement of the Union’s common goals with respect, unity and solidarity.