Pope Francis has urged European leaders to resist the “false forms of security” promised by those who want to wall themselves off, just days before Theresa May triggers article 50 negotiations.
In a speech at the Vatican, the pope warned that Europeans appeared to have forgotten the “tragedy” of the divisions of the past.
He also suggested that unless the EU showed a vision for its future, it could fall apart. “When a body loses its sense of direction and is no longer able to look ahead, it experiences a regression and, in the long run, risks dying,” the pope said.
Francis was speaking to the 27 leaders of the EU member states that will remain once the UK leaves, on the eve of a summit in Rome to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the European Union.
He claimed that politicians were being guided by fear and crises but warned of the dangers in egotistical populism that “hems people in and prevents them from overcoming and looking beyond their own narrow vision”.
He said: “Europe finds new hope when she refuses to yield to fear or close herself off in false forms of security. Politics needs this kind of leadership which avoids appealing to emotions to gain consent but instead, in a spirit of solidarity and subsidiarity, devises policies that can make the union as a whole develop harmoniously.”
He added that the leaders of the six countries who founded the European Economic Community on 25 March 1957 had shown faith in the future in the aftermath of a destructive war.
“They did not lack boldness, nor did they act too late,” he said. “It was clear from the outset, that the heart of the European political project could only be man himself.
“The first element of European vitality must be solidarity,” he added, describing the principle as “the most effective antidote to modern forms of populism”.
Francis didn’t mention Brexit by name, though he spoke of the solidarity owed to Britain to mourn this week’s attack on Westminster Bridge and at parliament that left five dead, including the assailant.
Francis, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, also insisted that Europe continue to open its doors to migrants fleeing war and poverty.
He said: “Without an approach inspired by those ideals, we end up dominated by the fear that others will wrench us from our usual habits, deprive us of familiar comforts, and somehow call into question a lifestyle that all too often consists of material prosperity alone.”
At the end of the audience, Francis greeted each of the leaders, giving a hug to French president Francois Hollande. The leaders then posed with the pope for a photo in the Sistine Chapel in front of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.
Britain is due to formally notify the EU of its intention to exit the union in a letter on 29 March.