Is the EU getting serious on religious freedom?

Mosque in Cologne, Germany, one of the biggest in the EU. [Hubert Figuière/Flickr]

“If you are going to be a serious person in the military, political, diplomatic world you have to understand religion.” So says Tim Montgomerie, a British political activist and journalist who edits the UnHerd website.

So how does the EU measure up?

The EU’s foreign policy voice lacks the clout of the United States, and its institutions appear to have taken something of a half-way house approach on promoting freedom of religion.

In 2013, EU government ministers agreed official guidelines on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief which established a standard for the bloc’s foreign policy advocacy work.

Meanwhile, European diplomats are now being trained on religion, while European External Action Service (EEAS) delegations have been instructed to engage with local religious actors.

Four years on, however, the Commission is yet to report on its implementation of the Guidelines, a point noted dimly by the European Parliament’s Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

“We have to acknowledge that freedom of religion or belief continues to be imperilled throughout the world,” the Intergroup stated in its annual report published in June. The Commission was guilty of “too many words and too few actions” on the subject, said the MEPs, who added that the EU executive had done little to address its shortcomings.

“It is not unfair to say that hardly any of the 2016 recommendations to the EEAS, the Commission and the Council were implemented,” their report stated.

The Commission is due to publish an impact assessment of the 2013 guidelines before the end of this year.

EU faces legal ‘turf war’ on controversial religious freedom cases

Freedom to live by the values of religious faith is protected in the EU treaties under Article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. But it remains a legal grey area across the EU.

The EU’s Special Envoy on promoting Freedom of Religion, former EU Commissioner Jan Figel, was first appointed in May 2016, initially for a one-year mandate which was extended by a further twelve months earlier this year.

Yet unlike his US counterpart, Figel does not enjoy an independent command and sits within the Commission with the official title of a special advisor to International Development commissioner Neven Mimica.

Figel’s role has so far been largely restricted to a decent media profile and status as a mouthpiece to shame foreign governments. Ahead of his visit to Saudi Arabia in August, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor urged Figel to call on its government to stop conditions and restrictions it has imposed on Qatari pilgrims to its territory to perform the Haj this year.

Religious conflict has been one of the defining features in South Asia and the Middle East, and in the Arab world since the 2011 uprisings, and these regions have been the main focus of the EU’s advocacy work.

“We are particularly concerned about the lack of religious freedom especially in three countries: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and India,” says Peter Van Dalen, a Dutch Conservative MEP and a co-chair of the European Parliament Intergroup.

In part, this apparent squeamishness could be the result of the EU’s limited competence on religion and the separation of state and religious institutions that is the common factor in most of its member states. The weakness of the EU’s mandate also makes it easier for its diplomats to ignore religious freedom, observers say.

During the EU’s Foreign Affairs chief Federica Mogherini’s recent trip to India, trade talks and security dominated proceedings. No mention of human rights or religious freedom were made despite the EU’s misgivings about religious persecution by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

In the United States, meanwhile, President Trump has nominated Kansas Governor Sam Brownback as his ambassador for international religious freedom. Brownback’s seniority suggests that the Trump administration will take the issue more seriously and be more vocal than the EU.

“We need to rediscover our shared space between faith and human rights,” Michael O’Flaherty, director of the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights, told an expert meeting with faith groups last week.

It appears as though, in its foreign policy at least, the EU is yet to strike this balance.