Pope warns of populist threat during speech in democracy’s birthplace

He is scheduled to travel on Sunday to the Aegean Sea island of Lesbos


Pope Francis has warned that the “easy answers” of populism and authoritarianism threaten democracy in Europe and called for fresh dedication to promoting the common good.

He used a speech to political and cultural leaders in Greece, the birthplace of democracy, to address Europe at large, arguing that only robust multilateralism can address the pressing issues of the day, from protecting the environment to the pandemic and poverty.

“Politics needs this in order to put common needs ahead of private interests,” Francis said after arriving in Athens on Saturday.

“Yet we cannot avoid noting with concern how today, and not only in Europe, we are witnessing a retreat from democracy.”

Francis, who lived through Argentina’s populist Peronist era as well as its military dictatorship, has frequently warned about the threat of authoritarianism and populism and the danger it poses to the European Union.

He did not name any countries or leaders during his speech, but the EU is locked in a feud with members Poland and Hungary over rule-of-law issues, with Warsaw insisting Polish law takes precedence over EU policies and regulations.

Outside the bloc, populist leaders in Brazil and the administration of former US president Donald Trump pressed nationalist policies on the environment that contrasted sharply with Francis’s call to care for “our common home”.

Opening the second leg of his five-day trip to Cyprus and Greece, Francis recalled that it was in Greece, according to Aristotle, that man became conscious of being a political animal and a member of a community of fellow citizens.

“Here, democracy was born,” Francis told Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou.

“That cradle, thousands of years later, was to become a house, a great house of democratic peoples. I am speaking of the European Union and the dream of peace and fraternity that it represents for so many peoples.”

That dream is at risk amid the economic upheaval and other disruptions of the pandemic that can breed nationalist sentiment and make authoritarianism seem “compelling and populism’s easy answers appear attractive”, Francis said.

“The remedy is not to be found in an obsessive quest for popularity, in a thirst for visibility, in a flurry of unrealistic promises… but in good politics,” he said.

Francis’s visit to Cyprus and Greece has also focused on the plight of migrants as Europe hardens its border control policies.

He is scheduled to travel on Sunday to the Aegean Sea island of Lesbos, where he visited five years ago to meet migrants at a detention camp.

In Athens, Francis is also meeting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the leader of Greece’s Orthodox Church, Archbishop Ieronymos.

Up to 4,000 police officers were readied for duty in the Greek capital for the Pope’s visit, and authorities banned protests and large public gatherings in parts of central Athens over the weekend.