Catholic Church leaders voice concern over EU election results

ARCHBISHOP GINTARAS GRUSAS

(OSV News) — As the outcome of elections to the European Parliament became known, Catholic Church leaders voiced concern at the apparent loss of enthusiasm for European unity and the rise in support for nationalist parties.

“People are clearly dismayed by some decisions coming out of the European Union — they want issues of fundamental rights, human dignity, family, education and peace to be the real focus,” said Archbishop Gintaras Grušas, president of the Council of Catholic Episcopates of Europe, or CCEE, incorporating 33 bishops’ conferences.

“With mainstream, centrist parties still maintaining a majority, we must hope they’ll see this as a call for more attention to the issues which matter to people on the ground,” he said.

Reaction to election results

The archbishop of Vilnius, Lithuania, was reacting to final results of the June 6-9 continent-wide ballot, the 10th since direct EU voting was introduced in 1979 and the first since Britain’s 2020 withdrawal from the EU.

In an OSV News interview, he said “overreaching attempts” by EU officials to legislate in areas reserved for individual member-states had caused a popular backlash, adding that he counted on newly elected members of Parliament to concentrate on “primary values important to everyone.”

Meanwhile, a Catholic bishop in Belgium told OSV News public dissatisfaction now posed a “huge challenge” for the EU, adding the church in his own country had wielded little influence with voters.

Auxiliary Bishop Jean Kockerols of Mechelen-Brussels, Belgium, left, listens as Cardinal Ruben Salazar Gomez of Bogota, Colombia, speaks during an Oct. 26, 2015, Vatican news conference to sign a document appealing for action on climate change. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“I’m worried about what’s happening in some areas, and I don’t think voting for extremist parties offers an answer,” said Auxiliary Bishop Jean Kockerols of Belgium’s Mechelen-Brussels Archdiocese and a veteran Europe watcher.

The bishop spoke as results in Belgium, which also staged national and regional elections, confirmed the victory of the nationalist New Flemish Alliance and Flemish Interest parties, with close to 40% of votes between them, far ahead of Prime Minister Alexander De Croo’s liberal seven-party coalition, which won fewer than 7%.

“EU officials haven’t invested enough time and energy in convincing citizens of the benefits of belonging to a larger reality than just their own countries — this is the key problem,” Bishop Kockerols said.

Voter turnout and Nationalist success

With 370 million people eligible to vote for the 720-seat Strasbourg, France-based Parliament, the elections also brought gains for nationalist and right-wing parties in Austria, German, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain.

However, while turnout was high in Belgium, Luxembourg and Malta, where voting is compulsory, it sank to 21.3% in Croatia and 28.9% in Lithuania, well below previous levels.

Ursula von der Leyen, lead candidate for the European conservatives in the European Union election, reacts to the announcement of the first provisional results for the European Parliament elections at EP headquarters in Brussels June 9, 2024. Germany’s von der Leyen is favored to be chosen as European Commission president for a second term. (OSV News/Piroschka van de Wouw, Reuters)

In a June 10 statement, the German president of the EU’s governing Commission, Ursula von Der Leyen, who is seeking a second five-year term, said her conservative European People’s Party bloc would pursue a coalition with liberal and social democratic parties.

However, with nationalist groups now holding a quarter of seats, up from a fifth in 2019, members of the EP are expected to adopt a tougher stance on areas from migration to climate change.

Nationalist surge in France and Germany

In France, President Emmanuel Macron announced snap parliamentary elections for June 30 after his governing centrist alliance was heavily defeated by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, which took over 32% on pledges to curb immigration and ban Muslim headscarves, while slashing energy taxes and boosting pensions.

Meanwhile, in Germany, where Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party-led coalition came third behind the conservative Christian Democratic Union and far-right Alternative for Germany, Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen welcomed a “stable voter turnout” of 64.8%, but warned the German Catholic news agency, KNA, the rise of “right-wing populist forces” showed “democracy cannot be taken for granted.”

Auxiliary Bishop Léon Wagener of Luxembourg told OSV News he was relieved the elections had not brought a much-feared “massive shift to the right,” but said he was particularly alarmed by strong nationalist votes among young people.

“It’s a good sign most European citizens haven’t lost their democratic compass, and the new European Parliament will still have a majority of pro-European parties,” he said. “But there’s a great deal of uncertainty among young people about their professional and social prospects, and this will not be without consequences. There’s a lack of trust in decision-makers and institutions to change things for the better, while the gap between rich and poor widens in many member-states.”

Church influence and future challenges

All three bishops sit on the Brussels-based Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union or, COMECE, which signed a joint declaration in May with Protestant and Orthodox churches, warning that many European Christians felt “marginalized, as they do not have the opportunity to express their positions and opinions in an autonomous and distinct way.”

The declaration said successive crises over immigration, health, energy and economic life had also combined with current “devastating wars” to call into question “democratic principles and institutions,” adding that the exclusion of “any appropriate reference” to Christian values in EU texts suggested the Christian tradition was being overlooked.

In a brief June 10 statement, COMECE described the European Parliament elections as a “great exercise in democracy,” adding that most voters had still backed the “European project” and expressed a “strong desire for more Europe.”

A European Christian Political Movement, formed in 2002, claims to be the only formation “explicitly promoting Christian values” in the European Parliament, whose seven blocs include the Christian Democratic European People’s Party, headed by the German Manfred Weber, which will hold 189 seats, to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, led by the Spanish Iratxe García Pérez, which gained 135.

In his OSV News interview, Archbishop Grušas said receptiveness to the church’s message on family and citizenship issues varied from country to country, as many EU citizens looked for ways to have their “concern for fundamental values” addressed.

Commitment to human dignity

Meanwhile, Bishop Wagener said he had also heard “no reference” to the church’s position in preelection debates, suggesting its influence with voters was “very limited.”

“It’s regrettable that nationalist parties represent values such as those of the family more strongly than other centrist parties — tempting Catholics to vote for them,” the Luxembourg auxiliary told OSV News.

“The church’s task now is to keep a close eye on further political developments, rejecting anti-semitic tendencies in the strongest possible terms, and raising its voice in the reorganization of European asylum procedures to ensure inhumane conditions do not arise,” the bishop said.

“The church must also reject populist slogans that divide people into good and bad, and stand up radically in defense of human dignity,” Bishop Wagener added.

This post Catholic Church leaders voice concern over EU election results appeared on Our Sunday Visitor.

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