Monday 18. November 2019
2009
COMECE Press 18/11/2010

 

 

Opening Address

to the Autumn Plenary Session of COMECE

Mgr. Adrianus van Luyn

18 November 2009

 

Translation from the original German

 

 

Dear Colleagues, Dear Plenary Assembly Participants,

 

Since our last meeting here in Brussels last March, the European Union has marked a number of significant changes. Looking back, I would like to make particular mention of a few of them, as they have a far-reaching impact on our work and will be keeping us busy in the near future.

 

I-Review

 

1. Election of the European Parliament

Between 4 and 7 June this year, 375 million citizens of the 27 Member States of the European Union who were eligible voters had to elect a new European Parliament. In the run-up to the election, it was feared that, in the light of the persistent criticism by the public of different aspects of the European project, the voter turnout would be massively reduced. In real figures, a total of 161.3 million people went to the polls: that is 43 % of the total electorate, meaning a 2.5% decline in comparison with the last vote in 2004. Yet in many countries, like the Scandinavian Member States and Austria, voting turnout even increased - despite poor approval ratings for the EU as a whole.

 

More than half of the 736 MEPs were elected to the European Parliament for the first time. This also created a generational change amongst the MEPs. Only one MEP was re-elected from the first directly elected European Parliament (1979 - 1984). He is Hans-Gert Pöttering, who was also the President of the most recent Parliament.

The composition of the Parliament underwent a major upheaval:  the coalition of the European People's Party and the Christian Democrats collapsed, and a new group of conservative parties emerged, consisting of the British Tories, the Czech ODS and a few other smaller Conservative Parties. However, with 36% of the seats, the European People's Party still remains the largest group in the Parliament, followed by the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats with 25% of the mandate and the Liberal Alliance with 11.4%. The new group of Conservatives and Reformists has 54 seats, that is, 7.3% of the mandate.

 

Meanwhile, the Parliament has restarted its regular work and has elected the different committees together with their respective chairmen. In its first session in July 2009, the former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek was elected President for the first two and a half years of the legislative term by the Parliament in Plenary Session. He is the first President of one of the European Union's three great Institutions to originate from one of the new Member States - the same States of Central and Eastern Europe which gained independence from Communism through the "Velvet Revolution" in 1989 and entered the European Union on 1 May 2004 and

1 January 2007.

 

President Buzek is a Pole and Protestant. He got to know about COMECE and our work through contacts in the last legislative term. Our Secretary General has also established contact with him and we hope that we will have an opportunity to meet him here in Brussels during our next Plenary Assembly.

 

After the election and swearing-in of the Parliamentary Members, many of us have already contacted them to congratulate them on their new term of office. Our Polish colleague invited the MEPs from his country to come to a meeting here in COMECE. The Austrian Bishops' Conference intends to extend the same invitation next year. These informal contacts are useful as they facilitate our access to the MEPs, even when we have no current requests to put to them. Later on we will find it easier to approach them in order to raise concrete questions that are important to us, as we shall already have become acquainted.

 

2. Ratification of the Lisbon Treaty

Surely the most important event - after to the re-election and renewal of the European Parliament - was the completion of the Lisbon Treaty ratification process. To get to that point several fairly major obstacles had to be overcome. Last March, four countries - Germany, Ireland, Poland and the Czech Republic - had still not ratified the Treaty.

 

Political circles in Germany were waiting for a decision of the Federal Constitutional Court on whether and to what extent the Lisbon Treaty was in conformity with German Basic Law. In its ruling of 30 June this year, the judges held that the Treaty and its provisions were basically "in conformity with the Basic Law". However, they maintained that any further transfer of powers to the European Union, which currently sometimes takes place quietly in so-called "Adjustment procedures", should henceforward be approved by the German Parliament. To this end, a special law had to be passed. As Germany was about to elect a new Federal Parliament (Bundestag) on 28 September, the Bundestag was reconvened in extraordinary session during the summer in order to debate and finally adopt the draft law in question. As soon as this had been done, Federal German President Köhler immediately signed and ratified the Lisbon Treaty.

 

The situation in Ireland was rather more difficult. Here the Treaty had been rejected by a referendum in June 2008. With certain concessions made by the European Council in the form of a Declaration, the neutrality of Ireland was confirmed and its self-determination in various legal matters, including legislation on matters of tax and abortion, was strengthened. Once this had been done, the way was open to the Irish government to hold another referendum, conducted on 2 October. We know the outcome: with a 58% electorate turnout for the referendum, a good two-thirds, some 67.1 %, of voters delivered a "yes".

 

In the run-up to this referendum, the Bishop of Down and Connor, Mgr. Noël Treanor, issued a statement to the Irish Parliament's Committee for European Affairs. In this he declared, with the approval of Cardinal Brady, head of the Catholic Church of Ireland, that from a Catholic perspective there were no compulsory moral grounds for voting against the Treaty. However, at the same time this also meant that the Bishops were not making any express recommendations on how to vote on the Treaty.

 

Soon after the Irish referendum, President Kaczynski of Poland ratified the Treaty on 11 October in Warsaw. Given the significance of this act for the entire European Union, we most certainly do not hold it against him that on that same day he was prevented from coming to Gdansk to speak to us at the First Catholic Social Days for Europe.

 

The most difficult part was the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by the Czech President Klaus. The two chambers of the Czech Parliament had of course already approved the Treaty, but it was necessary to wait for the outcome of a ongoing procedure brought before the Czech Constitutional Court concerning the compatibility of the Treaty with the constitution. The situation was aggravated by the need to find a way for President Klaus to sign the Treaty without any significant loss of face, due to his reputation as one of the strongest critics of this Treaty.

After a concession by the European Council to a limited application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights (it is not applicable to the "Benes Decrees" concerning the expropriations after World War II) and a positive verdict of the Constitutional Court delivered on 3 November 2009, the Czech President finally signed the Treaty on that very day. With the deposition of the document in Rome, the ratification process is now finished and the Lisbon Treaty comes into force on 1 December 2009.

 

3. Appointment of a new Commission, the President and the "Minister of Foreign Affairs"

Tomorrow, on 19 November, the Heads of States and governments will be meeting here in Brussels to fill for the first time the two posts created by the Lisbon Treaty: the President of the European Council and the "High Representative for Foreign Affairs", who will also become Vice-President of the European Commission. In the run-up, various names have been put forward, and tomorrow we shall hopefully know more.

 

Finally, at the end of November the candidates for the new European Commission will be addressing the European Parliament. Provided no major difficulties arise, the newly appointed European Commission should be able to start working on 1 January 2010. For us too, here at COMECE, it will be interesting to learn who will be holding the key positions in future.

 

This brings to a provisional end a long phase of internal debate and reorganisation of the European Union. In fact, this phase has lasted seventeen years if we include the Maastricht Treaty as the first Treaty of the European Union.  During these years the focus was on debating the basics, the goals, the tasks and the structure of the European Union. The European Community of 1991 with 12 Member States has grown into the European Union of 2009 with 27 Member States, fifteen of which have meanwhile introduced the Euro as their common currency. The powers of the European Parliament have been extended, thus improving the democratic component of the Union. The weighting of votes for qualified majority decisions has been simplified and made more transparent. Finally, the Treaties have been reorganised and supplemented by a Charter of Fundamental Rights which forms an integral part of these Treaties.

 

II. Important challenges in the immediate future

 

 

1. Article 17

Dear Colleagues,

The years of European self-discovery were also of great significance for the churches and have brought about significant changes for them also. In October 1995, COMECE and KEK organised a seminar in Brussels on the relationship between Church and State from a European perspective. The seminar revealed that systems for Church-State relationships were organised in very different ways in the different EU Member States. This led to the proposal for a corresponding passage to be incorporated into the Amsterdam Treaty. The result was Declaration No. 11 on the status of churches and religious communities: The European Union respects the status which the churches and religious communities have in the respective Member States and will not infringe this.

During the discussions on a constitutional treaty, there was a growing conviction in the churches that the defensive protective clause of the Amsterdam Treaty should be supplemented with a clause on dialogue with positive wording. Through many interim stages, that wording was finally achieved and it is now to be found in the third paragraph of Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty: the open, transparent and regular dialogue conducted by the EU with the Churches and religious communities on the basis of their specific contributions. And so the Treaty codifies what began, during the years of negotiations, to be established as good practice. This "practical dialogue", and also the trust between European institutions and churches, have both increased over the years. This is due in no small part to the work of COMECE.

 

The "Building of the Instruments" is completed for the time being. From now on it's a matter of knowing how to use them, and to what ends. In the next few days we shall be discussing the practical application of Article 17 in our daily business with the European Union institutions. After that, we shall then initiate a "Dialogue about the Dialogue" with these institutions.

 

Apart from the question of knowing "how we want to conduct this dialogue", we should also be asking ourselves the question: "What topics should we be discussing with the European Union?"  Our mission as members of COMECE is not to be preoccupied with ourselves, nor to be safeguarding our privileges - to paraphrase Pope Benedict XVI - in the European policy area. Instead, it is to try to incorporate productively into the political process the Gospel of Jesus Christ which applies equally to all people. In the Foreword to my book 'The European Union and the Social Doctrine of the Church', published last July, I put this idea into words like this: "COMECE's task is to observe and monitor the developments in the European Institutions. The basis of this rests on the Catholic Social Doctrine to its full extent and on its two pillars of human dignity and the common good." That is why an open Dialogue is needed, which means that listening is as important as speaking. Dialogue is cited in the Encyclical "Caritas in veritate" as an important principle for guiding the actions of the Church in the world. Openness is also needed for the current and pressing political issues, and our readiness to grapple with them competently and comprehensively. Where is our contribution expected? Where are our words and expertise needed? Where should we intervene for the common good, for peace, for greater justice? In the following section I am going to address three concrete themes of current EU politics about which we shall be hearing a lot more over the next two days.

 

 

2.Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change

The UN conference on climate change is due to take place at the beginning of December in Copenhagen. What the APEC meeting made clear last week is that there will be no consensus in Copenhagen on a protocol to succeed Kyoto. It should however be possible to reach a political agreement on clear goals. These could then, over the course of next year, lead to the conclusion of a new protocol, either in Bonn or in Mexico.

 

Researchers on climate change complain that the objectives set by industrialised nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions are not ambitious enough to limit global warming to a maximum of 2°C by the end of this century. It is true that the European Union, with its unilateral goal of bringing down its emissions by 20 % by 2020 as compared to 1990 levels, is aiming higher than other industrialised countries. But even this does not satisfy the objective called for by climate experts to reduce greenhouse gases by 25-40% by 2020.

 

In the USA, President Obama has, without doubt, helped to set an important political trend. Japan has now set ambitious targets to reduce emissions which are similar in scope to those agreed on by the EU. But a question mark continues to hang over what contribution developing countries will make towards fighting climate change. Although they may have contributed little to global warming as yet, they are now playing in the premier league of greenhouse gas producers and will play a decisive role in future global greenhouse gas emissions. Without an adequate contribution on the part of these countries -  especially China, which is today the biggest global emitter, ahead of the USA -  it will not be possible to combat climate change in an effective way. The challenge lies in opening up realistic opportunities to these countries for ecologically-sustainable growth within the framework of the UN climate negotiations. Alongside the comprehensive transfer of technology required for this kind of endeavour, there is also a need for significant investment.

 

At the end of October, the European Council agreed on key aspects of the European negotiating position for the upcoming UN summit on climate change in Copenhagen. Alongside the goal of limiting global warming to a maximum of 2°C, the Council stresses the importance of at least halving global emissions by 2050 as compared to 1990. Moreover, the European Council is, for the first time, taking on board the drive by the UN International Panel on Climate Change for industrialised countries to reduce their emissions by 80 - 95% by 2050 as compared with 1990.

 

The European Council goes on to call for any future climate deal to contain a comprehensive financial agreement. In accordance with the wishes of the Heads of State and Government, this deal should be one of the central components of the Copenhagen agreement. The EU Heads of State take the view that all but the least-developed countries should contribute to the fund, according to their levels of emissions and economic clout. However, the European Council - to the displeasure of developing countries - did not set down any concrete sums.

 

It can only be hoped that when the time comes to put a figure on the financial contributions industrialised countries will have to pay, the decision will be based on these countries' historical responsibility for global warming. After all, the request to dig deep in order to help emerging countries overcome the climate change wrought to a considerable extent by industrialised nations does not amount to alms for the poor, but rather a requirement of justice. The success of the Copenhagen Agreement depends on the recognition of this simple truth.

 

Over the course of its dialogue with the EU Institutions, the COMECE Secretariat has, in various ways, expressed the wish for the decision-makers working in these Institutions to consider above all the interests of future generations and people in developing countries. As early as last November, the report 'A Christian View on Climate Change: the implications of climate change for lifestyles and for EU policies' by the COMECE working group on climate change was presented to us bishops and then made available  to the public. On 17 June 2009, COMECE, CEC and the European Commission held a dialogue seminar on the theme of 'Climate change, a challenge for lifestyles, solidarity and global justice'. Representatives from the European Commission (including the Director-General of DG Environment and a chief negotiator for the EU in the UN climate change negotiations), the European Parliament and the Member States spent an entire day exchanging views with church representatives and climate experts invited by the churches on the latest scientific findings on climate change. In so doing, church representatives were sending out a signal that they were keen to pass on a message of hope to all EU citizens and encourage them to do their bit in changing the way they lived to help save the planet. For their part, representatives from the European Institutions stressed the fact that it is vital that the Church should lend its support towards fighting climate change, in order to convince members of the public to become more climate-friendly in their day-to-day lives. From a Christian point of view, trying to mitigate the effects of climate change is not so much a matter of technical solutions but rather a question of how prepared one is to get involved in raising awareness of the issue in order to persuade people to adopt reasonable and more simple lifestyles.

 

 

3. Renegotiation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty

Next year in May we will see the renewal of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which covers nuclear weapons and related technology. In the light of the emergence of new nuclear powers such as India, Pakistan and North Korea, and the frightening question as to whether and when Iran will one day be joining their ranks, all eyes will be on these negotiations.

In the run-up to these talks, two windows of opportunity have unexpectedly swung open. This year, on 5 April, President Obama used his Prague address to propose that the USA adopt the 'zero option' for nuclear armament and invited other nuclear powers to follow his example in order to hammer out a concrete deal on this basis. Further to this gesture, the President's negotiating team were highly cooperative in preparatory discussions.

We should not be naive: negotiations on this issue are extremely complex and whether or not they succeed hangs on a number of factors, determined by global policy and the course it decides to take at this point in time. On a visit in my capacity as President of 'Pax Christi Nederland' to the State Secretariat in Rome, I began to see the extent of the interest the Holy See takes in the success of these negotiations and the efforts it is devoting to ensure they are brought to a satisfactory conclusion. The statement by Archbishop Mamberti to the UN Security Council on 24 September is crystal clear: the existence of nuclear weapons is an assault on our planet. Atomic weapons are not merely to be rejected - their very existence is a grave mistake. A second, very clear window of opportunity was provided by the announcement from the new Federal German Government. In its governmental declaration it announced that it was taking active measures to remove tactical nuclear weapons from German soil. This striking proposal is also part of a wider context: the negotiations on a new strategic concept for NATO.

 

The German government is set on laying down this course of action. But it is also aware of the difficulties inherent in embarking on such a path. Certainly, it would be helpful if the four EU Member States upon whose territory US tactical nuclear weapons still remain could all agree on this step. Not only Germany but also Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands are involved. A combination of the American 'zero option' and the Germans' decision could create the opportunity for drawing closer to a world without nuclear weapons. As stated earlier, the Holy See is also preoccupied by these concerns, because they could lead to concrete steps being taken to reduce the threat to world peace from nuclear weapons.

Yet the question arises as to whether churches in Europe, and specifically COMECE, ought not also to be active in supporting the EU on this initiative. On Friday, Paul Lansu, adviser to Pax Christi International, will address us on this subject and will be preparing a proposal.

 

 

4. Initiatives for a sustainable social market economy

The annual conference of the COMECE Social Affairs Commission took place in Gdansk in the run-up to the First Catholic Social Days for Europe. The central theme of the talks was an analysis of the European economic and financial crisis. The insights of the new social encyclical "Caritas in veritate" were a great help in this exercise. We shall be discussing our own analysis of the crisis and possibly making suggestions, on the basis of the report which will be presented to us shortly. However, there is one point that I would like to single out right now.

 

The deeper cause of the economic crisis is a distorted image of humanity. The concept of the human as a "homo economicus" intent only on benefit maximisation and the assertion of individual entitlements has, over the last few decades, very often determined the political direction in Europe. However it is evident in the moment of the crisis that striving for an ever higher Gross National Product and growing per capita income is not synonymous with greater human contentment, and it has caused lasting damage to natural resources. That is why I am delighted to see that at the moment there is a series of noteworthy initiatives which challenge the prevailing standards for benchmarking economic performance and social progress. Under a "humanistic synthesis" recommended by Pope Benedict XVI, a different definition of progress will have to be found. Looking back to Christian tradition may also contribute something towards this.  For instance, according to Christian understanding, every human is created by God and the protection of human life from conception to death is of the highest value. Furthermore, the relationships in which every person participates are not of secondary importance but belong, like the family, to the essential prerequisites for a fulfilled life. Humans are relational beings, who can, through living with others, while alternating between work and leisure, between everyday life and holidays, between weekdays and Sundays, still develop and open themselves up to God. The Christian image of society emphasises the need for observing some structural distinctions of human existence. Here we should mention first of all the distinction between man and woman, between parent and child, between brother and sister. These aspects also encompass an image of human toil not simply boiled down to the economic benefits derived therefrom. With the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, the European Union has undertaken to create a sustainable social market economy in Europe. Over the coming months, the European Institutions will be deliberating on a new ten-year strategy for economic and social development, set to supersede the Lisbon Strategy. A European Council decision on this matter is planned for the EU Summit to be held in Madrid in March 2010.

 

In the meantime, there is a proposal on the table that the COMECE Secretariat should organise a dialogue with representatives of the Parliament and the Commission on the image of humanity and society underlying this new strategy. It would also be desirable for the Bishops' Conferences to seek to make similar contacts in the Member States during the run-up to the Madrid Summit.

 

 

Dear Brothers

While preparing this review of the last few years, I have gained a clearer view of the contribution that we as COMECE have been making up till now towards the building of the "Ecclesia in Europa". We should be grateful for this, and also to all those who have also worked towards this end, both inside and outside COMECE. This gives us the courage and the confidence to start on the work which is still ahead of us and which we will tackle with the same courage and the same faith in God's help.

 

Thank you for your attention.

 

 

 

 

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