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European Union election results cause concern among church leaders

13 June 2024

President Macron announces snap parliamentary elections for 30 June

ALAMY

Sint-Janskerk in Gouda, in the Netherlands, is used as a polling station for the 2024 EU elections

Sint-Janskerk in Gouda, in the Netherlands, is used as a polling station for the 2024 EU elections

CHURCH leaders have voiced concern over the strong support shown for nationalist politicians in last weekend’s European Union elections, while also welcoming the continued predominance of pro-Europe parties.

“Mainstream parties have maintained their majority — and I hope they’ll pay more attention now to the key issues facing people on the ground,” said Archbishop Gintaras Grušas of Vilnius, president of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE). “These election results show how people are rather dismayed at some of the decisions coming out of the EU. I think they want fundamental rights, human dignity, the family, education, and peace, especially in Ukraine, to be the main focus of EU governance.”

The Lithuanian Archbishop was reacting to results from the European Parliament elections, held on 6-9 June: the tenth since direct voting was introduced in 1979, and the first since Britain’s withdrawal from the EU in January 2020.

He told the Church Times that EU officials had “overreached” by attempting to legislate in areas reserved for national governments, and should avoid a further “backlash” by concentrating on “primary values of importance to everyone”.

The Roman Catholic Church and other denominations remained in dialogue with EU institutions on life and social justice issues, he said, and would also continue working together on continent-wide issues.

The acting council chair of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), the Rt Revd Kirsten Fehrs, said that the elections had highlighted “increasing social division”, and urged church communities to work with civil society in offering “third places”, where people can “work through crises and conflicts together, tell their stories, listen to each other and agree on common principles for living together.

“As Christians, we believe in a God who, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, makes relationships possible — His Holy Spirit promotes communication and restores community where no one thought it possible”, Bishop Fehrs said in a joint statement on Monday with Diakonie Deutschland and the Church’s Office for Missionary Development.

She continued: “God’s Spirit also moves us as a Church and diaconate to be sensitive to faults in our society and to work as an integrative force for good coexistence, understanding and cohesion. . . We are confident that the Church and diaconate can make an important contribution in this way to a democratic and humane local society where God’s spirit will find space to work and develop.”

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

While turnout was high in Belgium, Luxembourg, and Malta — where voting is compulsory — it sank to 21 and 28 per cent respectively in Croatia and Lithuania, and averaged just 51 per cent across the EU.

In a statement on Monday, 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.

But now that nationalist groups hold one quarter of the seats — up from one fifth in 2019 — MEPs are expected to adopt a tougher stance on opposition to immigration, climate adjustments, and topics.

In France, President Macron announced snap parliamentary elections for 30 June, after his governing centrist alliance was heavily defeated by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, which took more than 31 per cent.

In neighbouring Belgium, where the nationalist New Flemish Alliance and Flemish Interest parties gained 40 per cent between them, far outstripping the liberal seven-party coalition of the Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo, which won fewer than seven per cent, a RC bishop confirmed that public dissatisfaction now posed a “huge challenge” for the EU, and said that local churches had wielded little influence with voters.

“I’m worried about what’s happening in some areas, and I don’t think voting for extremist parties offers an answer,” the Auxiliary Bishop of Malines-Brussels, Mgr Jean Kockerols, told the Church Times. “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.”

In a joint pre-election declaration, signed in mid-May, Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic leaders warned that successive crises over immigration, health, energy, and economic life had combined with current “devastating wars” to call into question “democratic principles and institutions”.

They said that many Christians felt marginalised in Europe, “without an opportunity to express their positions and opinions in an autonomous and distinct way”, and that the exclusion of “any appropriate reference” to Christian values in EU texts suggested that the Christian tradition was being overlooked.

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 (AFD), a former Jesuit provincial, Fr Stefan Kiechle, said that the drop in support for Green politicians had been “deeply worrying”, given the importance of ecology, and he hoped that nationalist parties could be kept out of office.

“It’s worth remembering that Europe’s values are biblical and Christian in origin. As an idea, a community of people, Europe is too small and fragmented to allow itself to be torn apart by internal conflicts,” Fr Kiechle, editor of the Stimmen der Zeit cultural magazine, told the Church Times.

“I think church leaders have been right to warn against parties who disregard Christian ideas. But the low turnout in these elections also shows a tiredness with European questions, with many rejecting what comes out of distant Brussels.”

Germany’s Evangelical Press Service reported on Monday that a Protestant Church council chairman from Alt-Ruppin, north of Berlin, Henry Preuss, faced expulsion from his church offices after topping the ballot for the far-right AFD, now the leading party in Eastern Germany.

Read more on this story in this week’s Leader comment here

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