As Europe faces uncertain future, ambassadors eager to exchange ideas

Vatican City, Oct 27, 2017 / 03:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Ahead of a Vatican conference exploring the future of the European Union, several ambassadors to the Holy See have said the event is a prime opportunity to share ideas with those who are beyond their usual circles.

And the Church, they said,  is in a unique position to speak on major issues, offering key insights from which many global leaders could benefit.

Hungary’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Eduard Habsburg, told CNA that when exploring the current challenges that Europe is facing, it’s important to recognize that there are different visions, “but that they are reconcilable, and that if you speak to each other you can march in a good direction.”

“I think the greatest enemy of Europe is the idea that everybody agrees on everything which is just one vision. It doesn’t work like that,” he said. “We’re a big family with many different members who sort-of agree on a general direction, but who may sometimes have different opinions on things.”

Habsburg, who will be leading an Italian-language group during the conference, said he is looking forward to the discussion because “it’s not going to be the usual people together; they are really going to mix (it up) so that you sit with people you don’t usually meet.”

Because of this “there’s no danger that everybody pats each other on the back in mutual agreement on everything, but you are really going to be exposed to different ideas and different geographic regions, and that’s a very, very exciting prospect,” he said.

Added to this is the desire to more intentionally involve the voice of the Church, which is organizing the event. So another key goal, then, is “to bring Church people into contact with E.U. people to engage the Church more into E.U. business and topics.”

In comments to CNA, Irish Ambassador to the Holy See Emma Madigan said that given this year’s celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome that established the E.U., “we want as many voices as possible involved in the future of Europe.”

“Europe is only strengthened by the engagement of thoughtful people, hearing their concerns and their criticism and their hopes,” she said.

The conference is an opportunity “for a broader and a deeper exchange of views among people of great experience and insight,” Madigan said, voicing her belief that the event “will benefit both from the different perspectives the participants will bring, but also the common ground they share in terms of the global challenges they identify and the fundamental values of dialogue, cooperation and inclusion.”

Titled “(Re)Thinking Europe: A Christian Contribution to the Future of the European Project,” the conference takes place in Rome Oct. 27-29, and will gather together hundreds of high-level Church and E.U. political leaders.

It is being organized by the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community in partnership with the Holy See, and will draw hundreds of civil and ecclesial leaders from across Europe and the E.U. to offer a constructive reflection on the challenges facing Europe.

Rather than an official congress with a formal concluding declaration, the event will be more of a frank discussion between the various stakeholders, as well as an opportunity to for the different parties to exchange ideas and opinions.

Some 350 participants from 28 delegations representing all E.U. countries are slated to attend, including high-level E.U. politicians and Catholic hierarchy, academics, ambassadors, representatives of different Catholic organizations and movements, as well as from other Christian delegations.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin will open the conference with a keynote speech Friday, and his address will be followed by a speech from former President of the European Parliament Pat Cox on the “crossroads” at which Europe currently stands.

From there, discussion will dive into topics such as the state of democracy in Europe and how to build bridges among the various E.U. member-states, as well as what kind of economy is best for Europe amid a changing world.

On Saturday, various ambassadors to the Holy See will chair discussion groups divided by language, so the various interlocutors can meet and exchange ideas with representatives from different countries and organizations, both civil and ecclesial.  

The conference will close with an audience with Pope Francis, who throughout his pontificate has been outspoken about his vision for Europe, including the need to “rediscover” the Christian roots of the continent and to find new, innovative and creative solutions to modern problems.

Habsburg said he is happy to see the bishops organizing the event, and that from the words the Pope has spoken, it’s obvious that Francis “really cares about Europe, and the E.U.”

“I was present at the E.U. 60th anniversary meeting in Rome, and you could feel that he really cares about Europe and tries to engage in a dialogue,” he said.

As far as the conference and the role of Church leaders in shaping the future of the E.U., Habsburg said he believes the event was organized in part because the Holy See wants to “sensitize the local bishops conferences to E.U. topics in order to help governments.”

“My interpretation is that the Pope wants to expose Church members from different European states to major E.U. issues and make them a partner in the discussion,” he said. And coupled with this is also the fact that “one doesn’t want religion to be pushed out of political talk and everyday reality in the E.U.”

“I’m very happy that this comes from the bishops,” he said, adding that “perhaps sometimes, through all the hectic everyday politics, you need those moments where you can sit back and look at the greater picture.”

In comments to CNA, British Ambassador to the Holy See Sally Axworthy noted that Pope Francis continually encourages “both the Church and governments to respond to the challenges that they see around them with compassion for the vulnerable and a strong sense of our values.”

“We support him in that,” she said, adding that the British government also welcomes the fact that European bishops and Church leaders want to contribute to the discussion on the future of Europe.

“It is important that the religious perspective on Europe’s future direction is heard,” she said.

Similarly, Madigan noted that Pope Francis’ words about Europe have been strong, and that he has always sought “to challenge European leaders to create the best version of Europe they possibly can.”

Madigan, who has been Ireland’s ambassador to the Holy See since 2014, pointed to what she has perceived as a “subtle development” in the Pope’s approach to Europe the past few years, continuing to challenge, but with greater focus on “the extent to which Europe exemplifies values that should be more prevalent in the world than they are – peace, democracy, dialogue, cooperation and respect for human dignity and freedom.”

French Ambassador to the Holy See Philippe Zeller also commented on the poignancy of the Pope’s message on Europe, particularly in his recent speeches.

Also pointing to the subtle change in the tone used by Pope Francis – who during his visit to Strasbourg in 2014 told E.U. leaders that a “grandmother Europe” needed to move beyond “outdated” systems, but in March was much more keen in highlighting the potential that Europe has for the future – Zeller said the March speech especially “was very well received,” particularly the reference to Europe’s roots.

Noting how in his March speech Francis pointed out that the six “founding fathers” of the E.U. “were all engaged in, in a personal view of course, the Catholic religion, in Christianity,” Zeller said that to present this view is “very important right now,” as Europe is re-thinking its identity.

Both Zeller and Habsburg stressed the importance of remembering Europe’s Christian roots.

It’s crucial to introduce ideas based on “common heritage, on cultural roots,” Zeller said, and voiced his excitement at having the opportunity for leaders and politicians to have an open discussion about Europe, “which actually is not doing very well.”

“The E.U. faces real and difficult challenges now,” he said, so the idea of having a meeting among the episcopal conferences in Europe as well as political leaders is “very interesting and we are happy as European ambassadors to the Holy See to be associated and to share the views of these different conferences.”

Likewise, Habsburg said he believes that for Europe truly to advance, it must “go back to core values, and some of those core values, in my opinion, are the Christian roots of Europe.”

Both family and solidarity are two key values that need to be re-emphasized today, he said, adding that there has to be a careful balance “between doing things together and having a healthy respect of the differences.”

In terms of the message each country wants to bring to the discussion table, Madigan, Habsburg, and Zeller all voiced their desire to both share their own local experience on key issues, and to listen.

For France, Zeller said their new president, Emmanuel Macron, has a lot of ideas on the challenges Europe faces, including security and defense policies, economic and business policies, as well as the desire to reduce unemployment and increase trade opportunities.

“It’s interesting for us to see that those ideas presented by our new president and government could be shared or could trigger some ideas” within the E.U., he said, and pointed to what he believes is a need to “re-introduce this aspect of common values.”

As for Ireland, which in many ways is facing a heightened sense of national uncertainty following the 2016 Brexit vote, Madigan noted that almost immediately after the result of the UK referendum was known, members of the E.U.27 met in Bratislava, where they recognized that “the E.U. is not perfect but it is the best instrument we have for addressing the new challenges we are facing.”

Looking forward, Madigan said the future of the E.U. “is inseparable from the future of the world,” and that as such, members must adapt to the new challenges faced not only on the continent, but throughout the world.

Europe is and must be “much more than a debate on institutions,” she said. Rather, “it is about achieving outcomes for all our citizens and the expression of our values in the world.”

Voicing his hopes for the outcome of the conference, Habsburg said his biggest desire is that “we should not talk so much about each other, but talk with each other, and most of all listen to each other.”

“I have the impression that some countries which are at times being perceived as being very critical of Europe or even rebellious, often only have wishes that could somehow also further the common European cause, but are often not listened to or are often drowned in lots of political narratives,” he said.

However, during the conference everyone will be able to speak up about their own ideas and visions of Europe, he said, explaining that discussion groups will focus largely on questions such as “what is your idea about the path of Europe in your part of the world? What are you dreams? Where could we go? What do we have in common?”

“It’s a real serious stopping, sitting down together and talking, and I think Europe really needs that now,” he said. And while heads of state meet with regularity, the conference is unique in that so many people from different levels of both Church and state will attend and share ideas.

“So it’s really going to be a very interesting experience,” he said. “I think this conference is an incredible sign of hope.”

 

Hannah Brockhaus contributed to this report.

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