· Vatican City ·

Interview with David Sassoli, President of the European Parliament

Europe means concrete attention to people

25 April 2020

Only together can we emerge from the crisis

We are speaking to David Sassoli, President of the European Parliament, by telephone on a highly symbolic date, 25 April. Our conversation revolves around the themes of values, freedom, democracy and pluralism which underlie the anniversary. These are not abstract themes; they are the “sources” from which the care and attention for the concrete life of people come about. Once again, it is from this dimension that we have to commence in rebuilding a Europe capable of emerging stronger from the tremendous crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

On several occasions recently, Pope Francis has devoted ample space in his discourses to the theme of Europe. For example, in the Urbi et Orbi Easter message he said that: “After the Second World War, this continent was able to rise again, thanks to a concrete spirit of solidarity that enabled it to overcome the rivalries of the past. It is more urgent than ever, especially in the present circumstances, that these rivalries do not regain force, but that all recognize themselves as part of a single family and support one another. The European Union is presently facing an epochal challenge, on which will depend its future, and that of the whole world. Let us not lose the opportunity to give further proof of solidarity, also by turning to innovative solutions”. I wanted to ask you, as a Catholic, as a citizen, as a political representative, and as President of the European Parliament, what effect did the Holy Father make on you when you heard these words?

The effect  was that they were a just reminder to face this historic chapter with responsibility; because, it is true that Europe is a community of interests, but it cannot but be other than a community with a common destiny. In addition, at this moment, the Holy Father’s call is particularly important because he asks us to be attentive to everyone. I believe that this is the moment when the Europe of States, of nations, of governments, can strengthen its institutions, to be close to all citizens, those of the north and those of the south. To do what? First of all, to review its own model of development, to be able to better protect people and also to safeguard those values that the Holy Father summoned, and which are an indispensable element in sustaining the challenges that the global world proposes to us. We have a responsibility that also concerns the legacy of values that these seventy years have given us: freedom, democracy, pluralism. I believe that at this time we must be even more proudly faithful to European values because the world needs them.

The European Union (EU) finds itself in a situation of having to harmonize the ideal that drove the founding fathers, with the concreteness — including financial —, required in the various historical and political instances it is facing. To what extent is it possible to find the difficult but necessary balance on each occasion and now especially?

The EU is at a change of phase, which will need vision and pragmatism. Europe is not built just by imagining it as enlightened. Europe is an immense area for political debate, and we want it to be more and more so. But, we also want it to be an area of participation and not just the crude defense of national interests. That is why the European area can also be an example and a model for others; not believing that we are better than others, but that we can offer everyone an important asset. We must show that in freedom, in democracy, respecting the fundamental rights of individuals and the value of life, we live better and we can improve standards of living. If Europe crumbles, who else in the world today would hold high the banner of human rights? Today, the world is asking for more democracy, not less.

The Pope says: “To give further proof of solidarity also by resorting to innovative solutions”: at the concrete level, can the measures that came out of the European Council on April 23, for example the Recovery Fund, be considered one of those innovative solutions of which the Pope speaks?

Yes, in the poverty of politics, the Council has taken an important step forward. We entered [the situation] a month and a half ago with our bare hands; we lacked the tools to deal with a crisis that was so deep that it will leave important consequences for our societies, in its wake.

Today, we are emerging from it a little better equipped, with timely interventions, some of which were long overdue, but they have been made quickly. A decision was taken at the Council on Thursday: to open a “reconstruction site” to provide a common European response to the emergency. This is a step forward; and, it was not a foregone conclusion. We must now base this reconstruction plan on solidarity. Let me say, however, that I believe that we will not only come out of this crisis by straightening out material issues; I believe that we will come out of this crisis if material issues are combined with a recovery of values, those European values that are essential today. Therefore, it is good to open up the building site and the debate that will follow, while trying to reconcile sensibilities, points of view and interests. The important thing to stress, however, is that we have heard all the Heads of Government call for a common exit from the crisis. We are coming out together, otherwise it would be a decline for everyone; this was not to be taken for granted a few weeks ago.

You have expressed the need for a “Marshall Plan” for the recovery, financed directly by the Member States of the Union. A strategy that would highlight the strength of the European Union, but above all its ability to be cohesive and supportive. This is what  I have interpreted as the message that we really need: proximity and not distance. From the role you play, do you perceive that there has been a snap, a change, that the social dimension has entered the centre of the European Union’s thinking?

Yes, because week after week everyone has become aware of the depths of the crisis. And how interdependent and connected the economies of individual states are. Europe is built with its crises, Jean Monnet said. That is how it is. And at each difficult moment everyone understands that you can’t do it alone, that no one is self-sufficient. We said that six weeks ago: either we will come out of this with a better equipped and stronger European Union, or we will not. To do this now we will need to strengthen the institutional level of the Union and make it capable of leading the new phase. Should we fight against selfishness? Yes, we should. Should we fight against an old nationalist idea that exists in all countries? Yes, we do. But, right now we all feel the need for the world to be able to deal with it if our institutions, the European democratic framework, are going to be more robust and able to take decisions quickly. So, it is not just solutions to the crisis as such; we need solutions to the change in phase that this crisis imposes on everyone. Let me give you an example: we cannot and do not want to give up freedoms and democracy, but we must also adapt them so that they are more capable of responding quickly, too.

We need to support an exit process to the crisis by reviewing the way we are. Strengthening Europe also means changing Europe by adapting the instruments with which we entered the storm. I believe this is an effort that concerns Brussels, but it concerns all the  capitals, all the  countries; they too must change. We also need to have a clear idea in the medium and long term range about where we want to go, what we want to do and how we want to rebuild. Do we want to return to putting the clock back or do we want to set the clock  at the right time, in which, with great difficulty, history has placed us? Today, the clock cannot be turned back. In this, Pope Francis’ strong appeal to us is all the more precious, he is right and he grasps the point, because democracy is strengthened if it looks to the people, to every person, to the interests and needs of every person. So, the challenge is to reconnect, to rediscover a vocation. Then it is true, we have a plan for reconstruction, a “Marshall Plan”, which, however, unlike the Second World War, must be financed by Europeans and will not be financed by others; a plan which, for example, must tell us how much change in our economic model we want, how much we want to invest in reconstruction on the Green Deal, and digital Europe. The pandemic has confronted us with a challenge, the change of phase, of pace, and this must see us being very careful and able to grasp the new elements. We owe this not only to the tradition and values of Europe; we also owe this to the people who have died, to the people who have left us, to this pain that the world is feeling. We must come out of it by better protecting our societies. Reconstruction is made up of many things, it contains many ingredients.

A few days ago, in an interview with Vatican News, Andrea Riccardi [Italian historian, professor, politician and activist, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio] stated that in his opinion the pandemic has not made shared action more difficult, but easier; consequently, the cohesion of everyone to try to change the situation. But, he also noted how the EU in the past, and perhaps even today, has neglected human topics, the issues of bonding. The attention to people that Pope Francis insists on reminds us that this is the answer to the real problem of European society, of Western societies, the problem of the great loneliness of people. Paradoxically, the coronavirus, that condemns us to isolation, has revealed a fact that was already present, this great loneliness. Is it for politics to respond to this, and how?

I am convinced that this phase, even as painful as it is, is bringing out so many elements of humanity. Politics, too, when it comes out of its oppositions, perhaps even makes this humanity evident. I am referring, for example, to certain measures, to good practices that many European governments, both in the north and in the south, are adopting at the moment and which could perhaps be useful and serve as examples. In Portugal, a law has been passed to give a fictitious address to homeless people and migrants so as to permit them access to social care and health services. I believe that this way of tackling the crisis, drawing on the experiences that civil societies are having, is very important because a policy without citizens lives in an ivory tower and becomes bureaucracy.

Therefore, I think that we will emerge from this period by strengthening our humanity, which at this moment is manifesting itself throughout Europe; this humanity is a great wealth and will also prove to be this period’s redemption.  Then, we must also not fall into visions of the enlightenment, because we know that it is not sufficient to imagine the new world; we must build it. We must do this step by step, battle after battle, supporting every step with consensus, because democracy is consensus, and find solutions through shared decisions. This is the time for great reflection on the way politics works. I would like to stress, however, that we are witnessing extraordinary things that are part of the generosity of the men and women who are fighting at the moment, who are rolling up their sleeves; think of all the associations that are being mobilized throughout Europe at the moment: what energy they are demonstrating! I therefore believe that we can be filled with hope, compared to the fatigue and  pain of these dramatic events. For us, this is a necessity: we need to charge up and recharge hope, and we can only do so if we [the EU] are close to people.

What role can the European Union play in the global post-pandemic setting? Can the EU become a role model?

It has to become a model, because otherwise it would have no function. Unfortunately, in the European area there are viruses other than Covid, which have always tormented the European spirit. One is certainly anti-Semitism and the other is nationalism, which are catalysts that produce division, enemy construction, hatred, and even wars in Europe. We must make the European area, which it already is, even more a point of reference; but, an area of freedom cannot live without responsibility and solidarity. I believe that this is Europe’s vocation, which our fathers handed over to us  seventy years ago, and we must invest in it. Europe cannot be useful only to itself, because it would have no vision, no horizons. It is of course useful to Europeans, to our countries to play a part in the world, otherwise they would be marginalized, but it is also useful for the world to have a point of reference. We do not want to emerge from this crisis with more authoritarianism and imperialism, but with more democracy and participation.

In an interview with L’Osservatore Romano a few months ago, Massimo Cacciari [University Professor,  and former Mayor of Venice] used the following expression: “Europe is old, decrepit. It needs a fertilizer and looking around, I say this as a non-believer, and the only fertilizer I see in circulation is the Catholic Church, the Catholics”. According to you, can the Catholic Church, Catholics, today play this role to regenerate not the Old Continent, but an old continent?

Yes, they can, but this must not be an alibi for those who are not Catholics, because the risk is to assign a responsibility to Catholics that must belong to everyone. It is always a burden on others, and that is not good. According to the Epistle to Diognetus, Christians live within society, not outside of it. And others must also live in society and must collaborate. Everyone must do their part. In Europe there are so many sensitivities, so many cultures and everyone must carry their own share of the responsibility. Certainly Catholics, Christians, will do this, but at this moment I believe that it is Europe as a whole that must have broad shoulders to assume a function in the eyes of the world. For Christians, I believe it is natural to think that the life of others, of those who are outside of our space, is the same as ours, that they should have the same rights. This is normal for Christians. That is why I believe that Pope Francis’ words are impressing everyone and are calling everyone to [a sense of] responsibility, even non-believers.

Society needs to be constantly regenerated. I recall the figure of Senator Roberto Ruffilli, who on 16 April 1988 was barbarously killed by terrorists; one thinks that from the Christian point of view to “fertilize” one must give life, the seed that dies produces much fruit. Ruffilli had dedicated his whole life to the ideal of freedom and democracy, his book was entitled “Il cittadino come arbitro” [The Citizen as Arbitrator]. Is democracy also at stake today in this crisis in Europe?

I was very close friends with Roberto. His testimony is truly an example. That title, Il cittadino come arbitro is very topical. It calls upon us to make sure that everything that comes out of the crisis has been done for the people, not just to sew up the holes within power dynamics. That is why we must come out of this crisis by strengthening democratic processes. But how many people today are working to divide the European area? And why is there so much effort to divide us, to make us weaker, to fragment us, to take us back to our small homeland? Why is there this strong dynamic coming from outside Europe, that triggers this desire to weaken us? And yet we do not have an army, we do not go to war, we do not invade countries ... I believe that the answer is because European values and European law are elements of strong contradiction at the moment with respect to global dynamics that see a resumption of authoritarianism. That is why Pope Francis did very well to call Europeans to take responsibility, so that at this moment they can be a point of reference for re-appropriating values that are truly important for man: the value of life, the value of people’s inalienable rights, the right to freedom; references that we take for granted, but that are not so throughout the world.

Is Cardinal Hollerich of Luxembourg right then, in saying recently in “La Civiltà Cattolica”: “Europe cannot be rebuilt without an idea of Europe without ideals”?

Certainly. But, we do have ideals even if we find it so hard to express them. The problem is that all too often, each nations’ selfishness, that mean-spirited nationalist feeling, the idea that “I am better than the other”, prevents us from unfolding our potential and manifesting our identity. I believe that this crisis could be an opportunity to free ourselves from the many chains that bind us.

by Andrea Monda