At the end of May, around 374 million citizens, the second-largest democratic electorate in the world (behind India), will be eligible to vote for the European Parliament, and polls suggest that far-right parties, or those opposed to a strong European Union, could win almost 30 percent of that legislature’s seats. Such a result could threaten the notion of the continental “common good,” one of the fundamental values of the European Union, according to some Catholic social justice groups.
During its last session, the European Parliament passed about 1,100 laws concerning areas like migration and borders, the environment (it banned single-use plastics) and business regulations (it strengthened the rights of consumers to control personal data on the internet). It has 751 lawmakers from 28 countries, at least until the United Kingdom leaves the union. The parliament includes members from a multitude of national parties from the radical left to the far right.
While the parliament has limited powers, leaving foreign policy and taxation issues to its individual members, this month’s election “is a very important signal to other continents,” Josianne Gauthier told America. Ms. Gauthier is the secretary general of International Cooperation for Development and Solidarity, an umbrella organization of Catholic social justice groups known by its French acronym, Cidse.
The far right has been splintered, but if the movement wins more seats and unites behind a pan-European party, it could become decisive in continental politics.
After World War II, the founders of what would become the European Union were convinced that countries could transcend their national interests to pursue peace and prosperity together. This ideal is now under threat. Herman Van Rompuy, a former president of the European Council, said that the individualism encouraged by today’s digitalized and online society leads to social isolation, which makes people vulnerable to right-wing populist appeals.
Until now, the far right has been splintered among several parties in the European Parliament. But if the movement wins more seats and unites behind a pan-European party, it could become decisive in continental politics, according to Olivier Costa, director of European Political and Governance Studies at the College of Europe. Mr. Costa notes that this is an objective of Steve Bannon, the former advisor to U.S. President Donald Trump who “who has been on mission in Europe” (though some are skeptical that Mr. Bannon himself has been effective in this endeavor).
For the first time, anti-European and far-right politicians from nations including France, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom could form a bloc with better-educated and more strategic people at its helm, Mr. Costa said. Uniting, however, will be their main challenge—they do not agree on many things, except for restricting migration and curtailing E.U. power in favor of greater national sovereignty.
That outcome is a concern to Catholic bishops from France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. On May 9 they issued a joint statement warning: “The EU is threatened today by various economic, political, demographic and ideological crises—but we are convinced it has tools to overcome them.
“Some seek to oppose the EU and resort back to independent nations. We are certain solidarity and collaboration between nations is the most fruitful response we can offer,” the church leaders said.
“To abandon Europe would be not just to register a suicide, but to incur a terrible responsibility before history of losing a patrimony entrusted to us for almost 2,000 years.”
The bishops argued that true unity and peace in Europe still lay in the future and were threatened by terrorism, unemployment, environmental degradation and demographic decline, as well as by the need for social justice “in face of a financial liberalism which scorns the human person.”
But, they said, “to abandon Europe would be not just to register a suicide, but to incur a terrible responsibility before history of losing a patrimony entrusted to us for almost 2,000 years.” The bishops called for Europeans to go to the polls in a show of support for European unity and to promote “dialogue and integration between peoples.”
Most Europeans like the European Union. According to polls commissioned by the European Parliament, the share of Europeans who believe that their country benefits from being a member of the European Union is about 67 percent, the highest since the question was first asked in 1983, and young adults are particularly supportive. So the main challenge for pro-European parties is to get people to the polling stations between May 23 and 26. The European Parliament will probably have a new governing coalition made up of center-right, center-left, free-market and Green parties, all forced to ally against an emboldened far right, according to Martin Maier, S.J., secretary for European affairs at the Jesuit European Social Centre.
Some analysts like Mr. Costa believe that the true tension in Europe is about identity. Two visions of Europe—and, arguably, two visions of Christianity—are competing in the upcoming election. One is held by the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, as well as other political figures such as Matteo Salvini from Italy and Marine Le Pen from France, who promote traditional definitions of family and nation. These leaders fear, in particular, the erosion of a white European identity and the eventual “Islamization” of the continent.
The second vision is promoted by Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, and E.U. leaders in Brussels. They champion European integration, multilateralism and progressive policies on diversity and gender. Most immediately, the rift between these two visions plays out in response to the migration crisis that is sending a stream of refugees to European shores.
“People ask themselves, are we in a white, Christian, traditional world or are we in a world that promotes multilateralism, human rights, progress and rights for minorities?” asked Mr. Costa. At the end of this month, voters in Europe will decide.