EU institutions in Brussels are bound to experience a delicate and turbulent period. In 2019 all EU citizens will be called to vote the next European Parliament. British voters will no longer be included, as a result of Brexit. Father Olivier Poquillon, Secretary General of COMECE (Commission of the Bishops’ Conference of the European Community) is attentively following the developments in the glass building. “Our mission is to encourage dialogue”, he said with determination, welcoming SIR in the COMECE offices. “We are not here to replace the political realm, nor to set the agenda of what should or shouldn’t be done in Europe. Our role is to accompany men and women in the European Union in their reflections. It’s a mission of service: we are here to serve the people that God has placed us amidst, that is, Europe.” “Dialogue” is one of the most powerful appeals of Pope Francis in the meeting held past October, titled “(Re)thinking Europe – a Christian contribution to the future of the European project.”
Let us start from here, Father Poquillon, what has changed since then? Indeed, it could be said that something has changed. That meeting was not a Congress but rather an occasion for dialogue. We gathered in the Vatican, in the heart of Europe but outside the European Union, bishops and political leaders, for a debate between people with different vocations and different cultural backgrounds. Church dignitaries and high-level political leaders accepted the invitation to participate. It was an extraordinary occasion for dialogue between government Ministers and MPs, Bishops and Cardinals from the North to the South, from the East and the West of the European Continent. It was not a dialogue between institutions, comparing numbers and figures, but one between men and women, each with their own experience, competences, responsibilities. The Pope did not present himself as a leadership figure but as an encouragement, and as a spur.
In the days that followed the meeting in Rome it was surprising to see political leaders quote from the Pope’s speech in their own addresses.
European elections are scheduled to take place in 2019. What’s the atmosphere like here in Brussels? There is a perceivable climate of election campaign. But as COMECE we are not here to side with a given political party. The Church must not tell people who they should vote for. For us an election campaign is an opportunity to highlight a set of issues that are dear to us. As regards migration and asylum for example, we raise several questions, that is, what is the role of the human person – not in terms of numbers – in migration policies; what is the reception capacity of single Countries? What steps are being taken to address immigration? These questions are intertwined, and they must all be equally addressed in electoral debates, if not, discussions and campaigns are bound to become the battlegrounds between the Left and the Right. And they will inevitably end up reflecting what happens on Facebook.
Political life could make a good use of Facebook, but is should never be reduced to a competition to collect the highest number of ‘likes’ in a debate.
European peoples continue finding it hard to love Europe. It is said that European peoples don’t love Europe, but perhaps they don’t love its institutions. All considered, Europe is a young institution, probably all it needs is to overcome this period of adolescence in order to grow up and finally reach a degree of maturity that will enable it to dialogue with everyone, without fearing otherness, without being afraid of diversity. Only in this way will it be able to unite all its peoples and jointly work for the common good.
How will politicians make people become passionate about the European project? Indeed, turnout at the polls has gradually decreased over the past years. This is happening throughout Europe in national elections and even more so in European elections, although the European Parliament that will take office after the vote will address issues that have an impact on all areas of life. But in order to love it is necessary to feel loved. Politics based on numbers and statistics alone needs to stop. People are turned off by numbers, statistics and percentages.
The human person must return to be at the centre of our concerns. As Pope Francis told us in Rome: we must replace the numbers with faces.
What is your proposal as COMECE from today until the European elections of 2019? As regards COMECE new presidential elections are scheduled for March, with a new composition of our institution. An important event scheduled for October will address the future of employment, a proposal launched by the International Labour Organization (ILO), to which we will give a contribution as European Christians. The job market is being severely tested and it’s subjected to the impact of new information technologies on society, which causes unemployment, the disappearance of traditional jobs and the birth of new ones. Labour is a major concern of Pope Francis, especially when it involves young people.
Economic growth is increasing in Europe coupled by greater social inequalities.
So the question is to put into effect an economy that cares for the human person. Next November we will celebrate the end of the First World War.
Which interpretative key will be used to remember those dark pages of European history? That conflict reminds us that we experienced a fratricidal war between Christians in Europe. Europe was a project of peace conceived by former enemies. It’s a very powerful message for today: the EU was created on diversity. We decided to rebuild on the foundations of what once divided us. It was a peace process undertaken by Countries that had battled against each other but that decided to accept their differences and acknowledge them, in order to build a common history of peace that included everyone. In fact, they decided to come together not despite their differences but by means of differences.
The European Union designated 2018 the European Year of Cultural Heritage. What is the specific contribution of Christian culture to contemporary Europe? Christian culture is unity in diversity. It’s dialogue, respect of otherness, inspired by the image of the Holy Trinity. It means listening to others. Today our societies are marked by a desperate lack of feeling of otherness. We live in anthropological systems that reject others only because they are different. Otherness, the Christian heritage for humanity, created an anthropology where man relates to others, where he receives, shares and transmits life.”