The European Commission today (25 August) dodged questions over France’s controversial burkini ban, but said there was nothing to stop EU officials wearing a burka to work.
Mayors in 15 French towns have banned the burkini, which covers the head and body, after the recent terror attacks in the country.
EURACTIV.com asked if the EU’s civil service thought it was against European values and rights to ban citizens from wearing certain items of clothing.
Commission Deputy Chief Spokesman Alexander Winterstein said, “On this matter it is for each member state to determine, subject to the supervision of the national court and the European Court of Human Rights, how they want to regulate the way people live together in their countries.”
The Commission does not have the power to make judgments on such regulations, which come under national jurisdiction.
But the European Court of Human Rights, which is not an EU body, can rule on whether one of the 47 Council of Europe countries has broken the European Convention of Human Rights.
Pressed further, Winterstein said, “I am not going to wade into this national debate. What we do have is rules against discrimination in the workplace… but that is not what you are after, you are after a general comment from this podium on what our member states consider to be the right policies.”
“The Commission may have a point about not having formal competency to address this matter, but more importantly, I would point out that the French authorities have no competency here either. They should not be telling women what to wear. Full stop,” Andrew Stroehlein of Human Rights Watch told EURACTIV.
Eurocrats can wear burkas
Winterstein was asked if there were any rules in the European Commission to prevent officials wearing a burka or veil in its buildings.
“We have no such rules in the Commission,” Winterstein said.
Europe’s executive is based in Brussels. Belgium followed France in banning women from wearing the full Islamic veil in public in 2011. Both countries have since been victims of Islamic State-inspired terror attacks.
Sources said there were no EU rules to prevent an official wearing the veil once they were inside a Commission building.
They said they had never seen an official wear a burka in the European Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters. The EU does not record the ethnicity or religion of its civil servants.
Winterstein was quizzed by reporters over the Commission’s previous comments over the state of democracy in Poland.
He was asked if the executive would be similarly concerned be a country legislating on grounds of “good taste, morals or secularism”.
The burkini bans in France have been justified on similar terms. A mother of two was fined on a beach in Cannes for wearing leggings, a tunic and a headscarf because she was not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism”.
Winterstein said the question was hypothetical, and moved onto a different subject at the daily midday press briefing.
French court to hear legal challenge
Last week Nice – the scene of a brutal truck attack on 14 July that murdered 86 – banned clothing that “overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks”.
A Catholic priest was murdered in church near the Northern city of Rouen 12 days later.
France’s highest administrative court will review the ban in several towns tomorrow, after a legal challenge by French NGO the Human Rights League. The NGO said the swimsuit ban was a “serious, illegal attack” on freedom.
“Such harassment is actually worse than absurd and unhelpful, of course. It’s dangerous,” said Human Rights Watch’s Stroehlein.
“It plays into ISIS’s hands,” Stroehlein continued, by “helping them in their efforts to show a person can’t be Muslim and European at the same time, which is hateful nonsense spouted by both ISIS and xenophobic ideologues in Europe hoping to win support by deepening tensions within complex societies.”
Previous efforts to challenge the ban have failed on the justification of keeping public order.
That state council ruling will provide a legal precedent for other towns to follow.
Its decision could ultimately be appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, once it has passed through French appeal courts.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of France and contender to return to the office, today branded the full body swimsuits a “provocation”.
But the Australian designer behind the burkini said the French had misunderstood her creation.
Last week Nice – the scene of a brutal truck attack on 14 July that murdered 86 – banned clothing that "overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks”.
- 26 August: France’s highest administrative court will review the ban