By Alessandro Gisotti
As has been the case for 35 years, the upcoming 9 May will mark Europe Day. Inevitably, this year’s celebration will be lived in a unique way. For some European Union countries, in fact, this anniversary will coincide with the first attempts to return to "normality". Others will probably still be grappling with restrictive measures to counter the spread of Covid-19. What is certain though, is that this celebration, which falls within the most dramatic period for Europe since the aftermath of the Second World War, may represent an opportunity to pause and reflect on the Common European Home's identity and mission. Few European citizens claim this Day as their own. Probably even fewer know why that date was chosen.
This year, we celebrate the Day's 70th anniversary. On 9 May 1950, the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman gave a memorable speech. In it, he proposed the creation of a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). This marked the first step on a path that, through a series of continental institutions, would lead to the birth of the European Union forty years later. The relevance of that declaration is striking. Schuman, still with the fresh images of the devastation caused by the fratricidal war that had ravaged Europe and the world, warned that “world peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it”: peace and solidarity. Glimpsing the path that would unfold in the succeeding decades, Schuman said, "Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity". Speaking of the ECSC's primary objective: the merging of coal and steel production - first and foremost that of France and Germany - he stressed that " this production will be offered to the world as a whole without distinction or exception, with the aim of contributing to raising living standards and to promoting peaceful achievements". The prophetic force of those words was so profound that even many years later, at the European Council held in Milan in June 1985, they were taken as a point of reference for Europe Day. Thus, Europe Day coincides with the date on which Schuman delivered his famous speech.
The approach of such an anniversary, in a situation that is putting a strain on the European dream, reminds us that we can still learn a lot from how the "founding fathers" responded to crises that were different, but no less serious, than the one facing Europe Union leaders today. To recall the words of Joseph Ratzinger, they were "objective and realistic politicians" for whom "politics was not pure pragmatism, since it was related to morality". To return to the roots and to the founding values of Europe is precisely what Pope Francis - the first non-European Pope in centuries – has constantly brought to the attention of European leaders and peoples. The most recent example of this is his Easter Urbi et orbi message, which struck so many believers and non-believers alike. On that occasion, Pope Francis warned 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". The ancient virus of division and selfishness returns along with the ever-effective vaccine of solidarity or, to use an expression even more dear to the Pope, of "human fraternity".
Memory is needed to face the present and to plan for the future, even more so at a time when so many certainties are lacking. The Pope who came from the end of the world, but is the son of immigrants from the Old Continent, has recalled this many times and in different contexts: in the Vatican as well as in Strasbourg. He has also recalled this in his Apostolic Journeys across Europe, almost always in countries far from the political and economic centre - from his first journey to Albania, to his last to Romania. Perhaps the most striking way in which Pope Francis exhorted us to return to our roots - following in the footsteps of another great Europeanist, Pope John Paul II – was in receiving the Charlemagne Prize. On 6 May 2016, addressing the heads of the European institutions, he recalled, in the words of Elie Wiesel, that we need a "memory transfusion" in Europe. In the words of the survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, not only will it allow us not to make the same mistakes as in the past, but it will also give us access to those acquisitions that have helped our peoples to cross the historical crossroads they were encountering in a positive way".
Pope Francis's dream for Europe is the same as that of the founding fathers. As he said during the press conference on the plane returning from his visit to Romania on 2 June 2019,, it is a dream to which we must "return". A dream called "solidarity" which today more than ever is needed to "update the idea of Europe". On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome, receiving the Heads of State and Governments of the European Union, Pope Francis stressed that "Europe finds hope in solidarity, which is also the most effective antidote to modern populism". Solidarity, he warned, "is not a good intention: it is characterized by concrete facts and gestures". He also recalled that, starting from solidarity, we must "start thinking in a European way again".
It was March 24, 2017 when Pope Francis pronounced these words. Only three years have passed and yet the last three months - with their burden of suffering, death and anguish - make that speech seem much more distant in time. Yet, it is precisely the crisis we are experiencing that makes it more urgent, because - as was stated just three years later, in the touching Statio Orbis of 27 March - this is truly the time of solidarity in which "no one reaches salvation by themselves".