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The need for a secular voice in the European Union (2010)

Dutch member of the European Parliament, Sophia in ‘t Veld, explains how the most powerful religious lobbies can have more influence than other NGOs, for example, through threats of excommunication. Yet they are now allowed to help draft EU policies. See also her more general article, “The rise of Europes religious right (2011) 

The need for a secular voice in the European Union

Sophia in ‘t Veld
New Europe, 15 November 2010

After decades of ongoing secularisation, and despite declining church attendance, churches and religious groups are increasing their influence on EU policy making. The first half century of European integration was dedicated largely to policies of a more technical nature: coal and steel or the internal market. As Europe evolves from diplomatic cooperation between governments, into a political union, a community of citizens, the need arises to define the shared values and discuss ethical questions.

Our values have already been laid down formally in a wide range of treaties, conventions and laws. The EU Treaties refer to shared values and to fundamental rights. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights provide a solid basis for the protection and promotion of our values.

Civil society actively naturally engages in further defining the values of the European Union, including associations representing various religious and secularist life stances. This resulted in the inclusion of Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, stating that the EU “shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with these churches and organisations”. But in practice, the “Dialogue” is very uneven and unrepresentative, as religious forces, in particular the most conservative strand, have disproportionate influence on EU policy making. The secularist voice is barely heard in the debate.

Most of these organisations have representatives in Brussels. However, unlike business lobbies or NGOs, these organisations are not subject to the regular rules on transparency. This is a serious omission, as this means the political influence of these organisations cannot be verified. All the more serious as religious organisations do not only have the regular advocacy tools of a lobby, but they can also apply the official rules and sanctions of their religious community – for example excommunication – to policy makers, forcing them to vote according to religious doctrine.

The Roman Catholic church has a special position, as the Vatican is at the same time a state. The EU has diplomatic relations with the Vatican, including an EU embassy. In past centuries, worldly and ecclesiastical powers were closely linked, and worldly rules sought divine legitimation of their reign.

Despite the official separation of church and state, in many Member States we still find traces of this century long cooperation. In contrast, the EU institutions have been purely secular from their inception. Attempts to insert a reference to the Judaeo-Christian roots in the EU Treaty failed. But the leaders of the EU institutions are seeking to create special ties between the EU and religion. Within the office of EU Commission President Barroso, a special unit has been set up for the “Relations with religion, churches and communities of conviction”. Barroso stages annual “Summits” with religious leaders.

The selection criteria for participants are unclear, as is the procedure for deciding the agenda. In recent years the Presidents of the Parliament and the Council have joined these “Summits”. Although there is no particular basis for this in Article 17, Barroso has chosen to meet separately with religious and secular groups. Barroso only accepted to meet with secular groups after questions and pressure from Members of the European Parliament.

A similar attitude was found in the previous President of the European Parliament, who had invited a series of religious leaders to address the Plenary session of the European Parliament. Under pressure he agreed to add a secular speaker to the list (the only woman, incidentally), but the President of Parliament himself was ostentatiously absent during her address to the plenary assembly.

The debates focus almost exclusively on a limited number of issues, relating to Fundamental Rights, sexual and reproductive health rights, family, and marriage. Freedom of religion and freedom of speech are another area of interest. Religious lobbies have no strong interest in other policy areas, such as transports or competition policies. On the whole the most powerful religious lobbies represent very conservative views, sometimes even at odds with the EU Fundamental Rights, for example equal treatment of gay and lesbian citizens. They make their presence felt on dossiers like the Anti-Discrimination directives, sexual and reproductive health rights in the context of the Millennium Development Goals, Development cooperation, the fight against HIV/Aids, or EU funding for stem cell research. In many cases they claim exemptions and exceptions from EU Fundamental Rights, on grounds of freedom of religion.

The European version of the “Religious Right” does not represent the majority of European citizens. But they have a strong influence on policy making. As Europe is becoming a mature political union, it is high time the secular voice be heard. Secular movements are highly diverse: atheists, agnostics, secularists, humanists, but also liberal religious associations such as Catholics for a Free Choice, women’s rights and gay rights movements. But they share the view that the separation of church and state applies equally to the EU institutions, and they stand firm for EU Fundamental Rights.

In the European Parliament the Platform for Secularism in Politics brings together MEPs and NGOs. The debates cover a wide range of issues, from gay rights to conscientious objection in medicine, from apostasy within Islam to the role of Concordats. The affiliated NGOs are now setting up the Alliance for Secularism in Europe.  The Platform and the Alliance will work towards a strong voice for secularism the European Union.

Previous article: Vatican starts using powerful new European petition procedure (2012)
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