VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis urged European leaders on Friday to resist the "false forms of security" promised by populists who want to wall themselves off and instead bank on a future of greater solidarity and union.
Francis welcomed 27 EU leaders to the Vatican on the eve of a summit to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the founding charter of the bloc.
The summit falls just days before Britain triggers a procedure to leave the EU and comes amid a wave of anti-EU populist sentiment sweeping the continent that threatens the very essence of the EU.
In his remarks, Francis said Europeans seem to have forgotten the "tragedy" of the walls and divisions that inspired leaders decades ago to hope for a better future through union.
Today, he said, politicians are guided instead by fear and crises and fall prey to egotistical populism that "hems people in and prevents them from overcoming and looking beyond their own narrow vision."
"Europe finds new hope when she refuses to yield to fear or close herself off in false forms of security," he said. "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."
It was the latest papal appeal to European leaders to resist the temptation of closing in on themselves amid economic troubles, migration crises and general distrust or indifference among ordinary Europeans about the EU project. Francis made a similar appeal to leaders during a 2014 visit to the European Parliament and more recently in accepting the Charlemagne prize, the annual award for contributions to European unity.
And it came at a particularly challenging time as the EU prepares to open Brexit negotiations with Britain after it voted to leave the bloc. 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, has been particularly insistent that Europe continue to open its doors to migrants fleeing war and poverty, and he echoed that appeal in his remarks Friday. He said it wasn't enough to think of migration as a question of numbers or security. Rather, it's a question of culture and how Europe plans to recover its ideals rather than submit to fear, 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 and chatted amiably with them, giving a particularly warm 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" before getting to work for Saturday's summit.