It is Time for Europe’s “Pope Francis Moment”


Yesterday, Pope Francis was presented with the Charlemagne Prize by the City of Aachen, or Aix-La-Chapelle, an honor given annually to individuals for their extraordinary commitment to European unity and solidarity.

In honoring a Pope who has been very vocal and outspoken in his criticism of the European Union, the award committee reminds us that European unity and solidarity are values that cannot be defined and rewritten by bureaucrats in Brussels.

When Pope Francis asks, “What has happened to you, the Europe of humanism, the champion of human rights, democracy and freedom?”, he is challenging all of us, regardless of which European nation we call home, to resist the Westphalian temptation of misplaced nationalism and to practice at home what we preach so well overseas.

Reminding us of the vision that bore the European project after the apocalypse of World War II, creating “an edifice made up of states united not by force but by free commitment to the common good,” the Pope offered a scathing indictment of European politics in the 21st century. It is a clear and unequivocal message in a year where EU member states have started closing and securing their borders to the south, European leaders have called for strict caps to the admission of refugees and asylum seekers, and far-right politicians have been able to garner popular support by asserting that we “cannot allow ourselves to be blackmailed by children’s eyes.

It is not the first time that Pope Francis has called out European leaders on their lack of solidarity, not only in regards to refugee and migration policy. In 2014, the Pontiff traveled to Strasbourg, France, to address 700 members of the European Parliament. Strongly criticizing the Union’s internal and external social policies, he decried the erosion of “transcendent human dignity” in societies that place the pursuit of opulence over the pursuit of happiness. The centrality of the human person, an essential component of the European idea, has been replaced with numerical identifiers and mainstream indifference, he offered, stating:

In addressing you today, I would like, as a pastor, to offer a message of hope and encouragement to all the citizens of Europe.

It is a message of encouragement to return to the firm conviction of the founders of the European Union, who envisioned a future based on the capacity to work together in bridging divisions and in fostering peace and fellowship between all the peoples of this continent. At the heart of this ambitious political project was confidence in man, not so much as a citizen or an economic agent, but in man, in men and women as persons endowed with transcendent dignity.

Two years after this famous address to the European Parliament, it is time for our “Pope Francis moment”, for a “memory transfusion”, as he called it, referencing Elie Wiesel. It is time for us to put the brakes on Europe’s humanist disintegration and reclaim “a Europe that promotes and protects the rights of everyone, without neglecting its duties toward all.”

Matthias Witt works in international development and humanitarian emergencies. A German native, he is currently based at the World Bank in Washington, DC. You can follow him on twitter @msbcw.