The Luxembourg cardinal who speaks for the European Union's Catholic bishops has warned the EU could be left "fatally wounded" from a lack of solidarity during the Covid-19 pandemic, fuelling "disenchantment with the European project".
"Let's have no illusions: we are not experiencing some 'great exception', since such crises will return", said Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, president of the Commission of EU Bishops Conferences (COMECE). "Yet the EU seems paralysed, and a return to national interests seems obvious to most member-countries. On the anniversary of the Schengen agreement, we see our borders closed, with no possibility of real dialogue and no mutual agreement".
Writing on Saturday in the Vatican-based bi-monthly, La Civilta Cattolica, he said the "world of consumption and pleasure" had long eclipsed fears of death among Europeans, leaving a generation "growing up in this superficial world and knowing no other". He added that the continent's economy had "taken the path of unbridled liberalism", guided by "maximisation of profit" largely undeterred by economic setbacks.
"Europe cannot be built without an idea of Europe, without ideals – yet images of the overcrowded refugee camp on Lesbos and thousands shipwrecked in the Mediterranean have inflicted deep wounds on the European ideal," Cardinal Hollerich said. "Lack of solidarity during the coronavirus crisis can become a fatal wound. We know a number of Italian and French patients are being treated in Germany, and others in Luxembourg. But we see evidence of the difficulties facing European solidarity, and I fear this will leave many disenchanted with the European project."
The German president of the EU's governing commission, Ursula von der Leyen, offered a "heartfelt apology" last week for failing to assist Italy, the country hardest hit by Covid-19, as EU governments closed their borders and opted for national responses to the crisis.
EU finance ministers announced a 540 billion-Euro joint package in mid-April to combat the pandemic's economic fallout, although experts have warned failure to agree a mutualisation of debt could necessitate drastic new austerity measures in poorer southern countries, with average EU growth forecast to fall by 7.5 percent during 2020.
In his Civilta Cattolica article, Cardinal Hollerich said it was essential to plan for reconstruction after the crisis, but warned that poor EU member-countries would become poorer still without sustained aid.
"This will be the last chance given to the European project, and I wholeheartedly hope the countries of the north will implement a solidarity project with those of southern Europe – not under blackmail, but making every effort possible," said the Jesuit cardinal. "Otherwise, it's not just the European idea that will be at risk, but the whole world map that will change after this crisis. Europe could emerge weaker, with nation-states themselves enfeebled by a return to nationalism."
Founded in 1980, COMECE runs a Brussels office adjoining EU institutions with a dozen mostly lay staffers, and has consistently backed closer European integration on behalf of the Bishops Conferences across the EU. In early February, the commission said it was confident Britain's departure from the trading bloc would be "an opportunity to trigger new dynamics between European peoples and rebuild a sense of community".