By: Marianne Heimbach-Steins, University of Muenster, Germany
From Thursday 22nd to Sunday 25th May 2014, approximately half a billion people in the countries of the European Union (EU) were invited to elect a new European Parliament. More intensely than had been the case in earlier election campaigns, the public was encouraged to vote. For the first time in a European election, campaign candidates presented themselves in TV-discussions. For the first time, the election of Parliament was presented as a decision on who would become the next president of the European Commission – and thus in fact the head of the European government.
More than in former elections, the Europeans not only voted for or against their national policy towards Europe, but for or against Europe as an influential political entity. It was the recent financial crisis and state crisis in many European countries that made people experience more directly the European dimension of the political, social and economic reality – be it in a supportive way or as a strong claim to austerity and as heavy burden. The awareness of Europe as a political reality that challenges all Europeans as citizens has definitely grown. Notwithstanding this positive signal, one must not ignore a widespread Euro-sceptic or anti-European attitude. In many European countries right wing parties and movements gained remarkable strength during the period of financial, economic and social crisis which had been troubling populations and governments of many European countries in recent years. In France, Italy, England, Denmark, and Hungary, to name but a few examples, nationalist, anti-European, partly xenophobic movements have gained public attention and political force. As a result of the elections, members of right wing and anti-European parties will occupy about 20% of the seats in the European Parliament. This is not an encouraging signal for the further development of the EU, and it presents a great challenge for all democratic forces in the EU.
What are burning issues in Europe as a political unit, 25 years after the fall of the iron curtain, which challenge its citizens and politicians, as well as Christian ethicists? At this very moment, the first thing to be mentioned is the Ukrainian crisis. It is in fact not only a national or a continental crisis, but seriously threatens the global political order as it has been developed since the end of the cold war. With the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis people in Western Europe became aware of the fact that there is an influential alternative narrative about the youngest period of European political history: the story of humiliation of the former Soviet power. It is not yet clear how the crisis - with its huge political and economic impact for either side - will be solved. Although the most recent signals from Russia might nourish the hope that, under the growing economic pressure, the new Ukrainian presidency will be respected, the crisis sheds light on the tensions linked with the asymmetries of power and on the deeply rooted struggle for recognition and sovereignty in the Eastern European states in the Post-Soviet era. From a Western European perspective, the delicacy of these issues has long been underestimated.
Europe as a political entity has grown to an extent which makes it difficult to describe it as a unit. The European Parliament brings together representatives from 28 different countries with an enormous disparity in terms of social, political, economic, cultural and religious circumstances, not to mention the immense variety of languages as one major symbol of this diversity. Fundamental social ethical questions need to be raised about the conditions of a politically stable and economically dynamic development of the European societies (and its continental cohesion): how to avoid or eliminate corruption; how to facilitate social commitment; how to engender a readiness to pay taxes, or contribute to a functioning system of social security (which is traditionally an integral part of the European idea of the state). A willing solidarity is required within and between the European states and societies to meet these challenges. The scale of the problem is shown by the huge job crisis which struck European societies during the recent recession. It produced severe consequences particularly for the young generation. In Greece as in Spain nearly 50% of young people found themselves without job prospects in the last few years.
Social ethical reflection, however, needs to transcend the European borders and take into account the role of Europe towards the global social and economic challenges. For many people from other parts of the world – be it from African countries or from the Middle East or elsewhere – Europe stands for a promise of safety and a better life. Immigration politics both on a national and a European level is crucial. Right now, with refugees from Syria and other places troubled by civil wars seeking asylum in Europe, politicians not only in Germany are further tightening immigration rules. Immigration politics needs to be coordinated on the EU level. The Mediterranean states with their huge external borders must not be left alone with the large numbers of immigrants reaching their coasts. Solutions are not as simple as either closing the borders or letting everyone in. Whereas right wing political parties and movements, fortifying “Fortress Europe”, loudly fight against labour migrants, asylum seekers and other “unwanted” immigrants, the European Parliament needs to create fair solutions - in terms of European and global solidarity- that recognize the basic human needs of people seeking for safety, shelter, work and basic conditions for a humane existence.
Marianne Heimbach-Steins, University of Muenster, Germany