The Pontiff on Friday gave a speech on Europe that the bloc’s leaders hope will convince citizens — including Brits — that the EU is worth fighting for, according to senior EU officials.
The high-profile audience was a sign of the influence a Papal word has in Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was present as were Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi and several heads of state, from Spain’s King Felipe to Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė.
“The Pope’s speech impressed me enormously,” European Parliament President Martin Schulz told reporters after the ceremony. “He spoke truth about Europe.”
And, thankfully for Schulz, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Council President Donald Tusk, the Pope refrained from criticizing the EU institutions’ representatives who were there to praise him as he was awarded the Charlemagne Prize for “work done on the European unification.”
Baker’s mission was clear: Don’t let the Pope give ammunition to the pro-Brexit campaign. The wider concern of the EU institutions’ presidents, according to aides, was: Don’t let the Pope speak about the bloc being weak and unable to tackle the tough issues, migration included.
During the ceremony in the Apostolic Palace’s 16th century Sala Regia, Pope Francis delivered a speech that was in line with the critical line he had previously taken on Europe’s policies, but with a softer message that leaders were pleased to hear.
“What has happened to you, the Europe of humanism, the champion of human rights, democracy and freedom?” the Pope asked. “What has happened to you, Europe, the mother of peoples and nations, the mother of great men and women who upheld, and even sacrificed their lives for, the dignity of their brothers and sisters?”
Schulz said he interpreted the speech as criticism of those in Europe who thought migration was a German problem, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and those who would not allow Muslims to come to their “Christian” country, such as Slovakia’s Robert Fico.
The Pope, who had brought 12 Syrian Muslims back with him from a recent trip to the Greek island of Lesvos, said he dreamt “of a Europe where being a migrant is not a crime but a summons to greater commitment on behalf of the dignity of every human being.”
After the speeches were over, Juncker told journalists he would make sure the Pope’s remarks would be heard all across Europe. Slovak and Hungarian translations of the Pope’s words had been prepared, an official traveling with the president said, in a clear dig at Orbán and Fico.
The Commission president stressed that “Europe is more than institutions, indicators or processes.” Europe, he said, was for the young. “Europe is the student studying abroad under the Erasmus network” that is said to have led to “one million marriages.”
“We will hear more from him [Juncker] about the young in the coming weeks”, an EU official said. “The young generation in the U.K. is the most convinced of Europe, data show.”
However, there were no young Brits in the Vatican to hear him speak, but plenty of Germans.