From the Worldwide Faith News archives

European Union - Neighbors as human companions and partners

Date 01 Oct 1998 11:05:30

Prospects for the churches in European Union's eastward expansion

GENEVA, 28 September 1998 (lwi) - The churches should come out firmly in
support of the building of a better future, helping people to see each
other as fellow human beings and partners. According to Wolfgang
Streitenberger, director of the European Commission's Mission in Austria,
this struggle against stereotypes and people's fears is what the European
Commission expects and hopes for from the churches. He was speaking at a
consultation on the churches' prospects in the eastward expansion of the
European Union (EU), held by the Evangelical Churches of the Augsburg and
Helvetic Confessions in Vienna, from September 9 to 11. Besides
representatives of the Protestant churches in Austria, numerous delegates
from Protestant churches in eastern and western Europe attended.

Streitenberger especially stressed the non-economic aspects of EU eastward
expansion and pointed out that the emotional side must be given more
consideration. The commission's central concern, he said, is to work
towards a stronger sense of community, a new sense of solidarity. For this
reason, in evaluating future EU candidates political criteria will be taken
into consideration more than economic. The churches' role, he summed up,
will be to help to give a soul to Europe.

A Christian spirit in EU eastward expansion also got special emphasis from
Oberkirchenratin Heidrun Tempel, who directs the Brussels office of the
German Protestant church. Tempel pointed out that EU eastern expansion
touches not only eastern Europe, but also the future of all of central
Europe, as well as ultimate reconciliation for the entire continent. She
then went on to address issues which are of daily concern to the churches
in the EU, such as dealing with religious pluralism and the legal
relationship between the churches and the EU. In her view, it was also the
churches' task to cultivate, especially among young people, receptiveness
to EU expansion and a sense of being EU citizens.

Praise and Criticism

There were distinctly different views among representatives of the
Evangelical Churches in Austria regarding Austria's joining the EU and its
effects on the churches.

The many travel advantages, especially in view of the imminent introduction
of the euro, were pointed out by the superintendent of Lower Austria's
churches, Paul Weiland. He remarked on the economic and financial benefits
brought by the EU, and the way in which increased competition has raised
the general range of services available. He saw as negative, however, the
increase in restrictions on the rights of foreigners.

Oberkirchenrat Johannes Dantine also noted positive effects in many areas
deriving from EU membership. Austria can no longer shut out economic
competition from other countries. Thus, among other things, a better range
of food products is available.

Voicing a contrary opinion, Ernst-Christian Gerhold, superintendent of the
Styrian churches, remarked, "The EU's desire to be anything more than an
economic giant is questionable. The big common market is a deadly struggle
to compete. A sense of community cannot develop in the context of
competitive struggle." He noted that, along with the availability of
products, competition had also increased, adding that small farmers,
especially in mountain areas, had "terrible difficulties" and felt strongly
a "loss of meaning" in their lives. He also called for more consideration
of "national characteristics" on the part of the EU.

Fearing concentrations of economic power which would be "carried on the
backs of citizens", Werner Horn, superintendent of the Viennese churches,
expressed worry about traditional Austrian businesses being sold off to
large German firms. In his opinion, such a development harbors a dangerous
potential for future dissatisfaction.

Protestantism must reorganize, says Bishop Sturm

Lutheran Bishop Herwig Sturm commented on a rise in political vigilance on
the part of the churches. This he saw as coming from inclusion in "Big
Brother" EU and the concomitant need for critical debate of its policies.
Sturm challenged, "Protestantism must reorganize," giving as an example of
meaningful reorganization among Protestant churches in Europe the relations
between Lutheran and Reformed churches in Austria.

Referring to ideas of Europe held by the Roman Catholic Church,
Superintendent Gerhold said, "For us Protestant churches it is extremely
important to develop a Protestant concept of Europe, so that we are ready
to enter into a good ecumenical dialogue."

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