The Revitalization of Europe
Many have observed that contemporary Europe is going through a deep spiritual crisis. Even St. John Paul II, the tireless “witness to hope,” wrote about the “dimming of hope” in his 2003 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Europa.
Much of Europe has lost its Christian memory, the pope explained. “Without spiritual roots,” he said, many are “like heirs who have squandered a patrimony entrusted to them by history” (7).
This cultural diagnosis is key to understanding the “One of Us” initiative, the largest citizens’ petition in the history of the European Union. In February 2014, One of Us representatives presented a petition — signed by nearly 2 million citizens — to protect unborn human life by banning EU funding of embryo-destructive research. Amid a secularized Europe whose permissive abortion laws continue to promote what Pope Francis has called a “throwaway” culture, the One of Us initiative emerged as a beacon of hope for human dignity.
Although the European Commission vetoed the petition on May 28, 2014, organizers of the initiative remain confident in the long-term success of their cause, having galvanized a transcontinental movement of pro-life organizations.
IN DEFENSE OF THE DEFENSELESS
Since its creation in 1993, the EU has been widely criticized for its democratic deficit. In order to give citizens more say in the legislative process, the EU established the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) in February 2011, allowing EU citizens to introduce legislative proposals via petition. To qualify, petitioners are required to collect a minimum of 1 million signatures from citizens in at least 7 of the 28 member states. These ECI petitions are then reviewed by the European Commission and, if approved, are forwarded to the European Parliament as a proposed legal action.
“The ECI mechanism aims to open the EU to citizen participation and to strengthen its democratic legitimacy,” explained Grégor Puppinck, president of the One of Us Citizens’ Committee and director of the European Centre for Law and Justice in Strasbourg, France.
Authors of the One of Us petition grounded their proposal in the 2011 Brüstle v. Greenpeace ruling by the European Court of Justice, which defined the embryo as “the beginning of human development.” Based on this definition, the petition that was presented May 11, 2012, by One of Us representatives stated that “the EU should establish a ban and end the financing of activities which presuppose the destruction of human embryos, in particular in the areas of research, development aid and public health.”
Officially launched January 2013, the One of Us petition drive gathered together people of goodwill in recognizing the inalienable dignity of human life from conception to natural death. Italian Member of the European Parliament Carlo Casini, a former judge and president of the largest pro-life group in Italy, began the initiative with the aid of Msgr. Piotr Mazurkiewicz of the Pontifical Council for the Family.
Though nonsectarian in nature, the initiative received particularly strong encouragement from the Catholic Church. Notably, Pope Benedict XVI drew attention to it in early February 2013: “I wish every success to the initiative called ‘Uno di noi’ [One of Us], so that Europe may always be a place where the dignity of every human being is protected.”
Momentum for the petition drive was strengthened when the first One of Us Congress was held in Kraków, Poland, the following November. The international meeting was attended by One of Us representatives from all 28 EU countries and received financial support from the Knights of Columbus in Poland.
Past State Deputy Krzysztof Orzechowski of Poland said, “Defense of the defenseless — those who do not even have the right to express their arguments — is one of the key activities of chivalry. So with great joy we joined this initiative.”
Enthusiasm for One of Us continued to grow, and the success of the petition surpassed all expectations. In just over a year, One of Us nearly doubled the required number of signatures — with more than 1.8 million — while the required minimum of signatures was exceeded in 20 out of 28 EU countries.
Following the submission of the petition in February 2014, a public hearing took place before the European Parliament in Brussels April 10, 2014. In a packed chamber, representatives of the initiative presented the ethical and legal basis for their cause. Though their case met with vehement opposition from secularist organizations, One of Us also garnered support from a broad spectrum of European politicians.
On April 11, 2014, the day after the public hearing, Pope Francis singled out the initiative in remarks to the Italian Pro-Life Movement: “May the Lord sustain the work you carry out as pro-life help centers and as the movement for life, especially the project ‘One of Us.’”
THE FUTURE OF ‘ONE OF US’
Despite the success of the initiative and its far-reaching support, the European Commission vetoed the One of Us petition on May 28, 2014. The commission simply declared that European funding of research programs on human embryos was “in full accordance with the EU Treaties and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union,” disregarding the fact that EU funds are being used for embryonic stem-cell research in several EU states where such practices are illegal.
In a press release at the time, the One of Us Executive Board expressed strong indignation, decrying the decision as a “travesty” and calling it “contrary to the principle of ‘participatory democracy.’”
“Rejection by the committee was arbitrary and without any legal justification,” Puppinck said. “It undermined the credibility of the ECI.”
Jakub Bałtroszewicz, coordinator of the Polish One of Us committee, observed that the commission is not interested in allowing citizens to make a real impact on European law. “Changes are possible only if they are in line with the position of the commission itself,” he said.
Despite disappointment with the decision, One of Us leaders viewed it as a temporary setback rather than the end of their initiative. Coinciding with the May 2014 outcome came the results of general elections across Europe, bringing with it the hope that the next appointed commission would be more receptive to protecting human life at all stages.
“One of Us mobilized countless people in all EU member states and showed that many more people hold pro-life positions than expected,” explained the initiative’s Austrian coordinator, Gudrun Kugler. “Socially and politically, this group must be viewed as one of the biggest pan-European interest groups, and we will certainly not be silent in the future.”
One sign of hope has been the transformation of the grassroots One of Us initiative into the One of Us Federation for Life and Human Dignity, composed of 29 European entities in 16 EU countries. Regardless of legislative hurdles in the short term, the hope of the federation and a host of other like-minded organizations across Europe is to grow stronger as an international movement, fostering an enduring culture of life.
“I see the movement One of Us has inspired as part of the fulfillment of John Paul II’s dream for human dignity,” said Orzechowski. “We must help Europe recover its soul.”
KRZYSZTOF MAZUR is a member of Our Lady of Mercy Council 15128 in Kraków, Poland.