Freedom of religion in EU diplomacy: Defending a cause or promoting divergent interests?

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Discussion between Gregory III and Jan Figel. [European Commission]

In recent years, the EU has taken several initiatives to promote freedom of religion across the world, even though the cause has been losing some of its lustre within international relations and has thrown into question the idea of basic rights as an indivisible whole, writes Professor François Foret.

François Foret is a professor of political science at Université Libre de Bruxelles.

It reveals a search for a balance between various factors: a symbolic display of unity around fundamental principles vs a calculated defence of the sometimes divergent interests of the EU as a whole, of member states and different Community institutions; preference for law over politics to contain the conflictual dimension of religion vs pragmatism leading sometimes to bend principles to comply with conditions on the field.

The emergence of a European strategy for promoting religious freedom is not a direct result of treaties, since the EU has no competence in this matter, particularly as regards defining what (and who) is a religion.

The prism of human rights, the fundamental mission and ultimate justification for the EU, thus offers the only possible action repertoire. Its consensual dimension suits best diplomats that have the difficult task of getting twenty-eight member states to speak with one voice.

This explains why the European External Action Service (EEAS) launched in 2011 has found that freedom of religion offers a symbolic cause with which it can assert itself at little cost as a political actor in dealings with third countries as well as other EU institutions.

However, things become appreciably more complicated as soon as one moves from upholding principles to putting them into practice. Our research has analysed the case of the ‘EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief’, a document intended to inform the approach taken by agents and partners of European diplomacy in the field.

Published in 2013, the document was the subject of our survey of EEAS Delegations around the world in 2015-2016 and should be subjected to an official impact assessment in 2017.

The main findings of this research first of all confirm the secondary importance of religion in diplomatic practice. Whatever its salience as a problem needing to be dealt with, and its political visibility, it continues to meet indifference, mistrust or hostility among foreign affairs professionals whose ethos calls for issues to be rationalised with a view to finding compromises recognising the interests of all parties.

Even reduced to the notion of freedom of religion, in itself a legal codification limiting its potential for controversy, religion remains too uncontrollable a variable to easily find a place in the diplomat’s tool kit.

The EU is exposed to the flaws inherent in any policy promoting religious freedom. Three dangers are lying in wait: regionalisation, confessionalisation and religionisation.

Regionalisation: reducing religion to freedom of religion ends up with religion becoming visible only where freedom of religion is under threat, thus masking it as a political variable at work within established democracies and increasing the risk of opposing a secular, pacified Western world to a developing world dominated by religious passions and violations of fundamental rights.

Confessionalisation: attempts to measure religious freedom stress individual practices, based on a conception of religion strongly influenced by the Judeo-Christian model which does not necessarily take account of the realities of other spiritual traditions with their less marked distinction between the sacred and the profane and between the individual and the collective.

Inequalities between religions may be increased to the benefit of those of them which have a hierarchy and spokespersons to make themselves heard. In certain cases, the break with equality is explicit, for example when some European political actors defend the idea that the EU should prioritize the protection of Christian minorities in danger in third countries, because of its civilizational heritage.

Religionalisation: the ‘umbrella’ of religious freedom held out by the EU and other international organisations may lead some social groups or individuals to reformulate their originally secular claims in religious terms in order to benefit from the golden opportunity thus provided. Social, economic, cultural or territorial divisions may thus be invested with a spiritual dimension which makes it harder to resolve differences.

A final manifestation of European policy on religious freedom which has led to polemics was the 2016 appointment by the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Junker of a special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief.

This singularisation of the notion has emphasised the break with the European vision of fundamental rights as an indivisible whole. The personality of the holder of this office (Slovak Jan Figel, a former Commissioner known to be a fervent Catholic) and the announcement of its creation in the presence of the Pope in the Vatican has given the post a culturalist connotation.

Finally, the fact that this Special Envoy reports not to the EEAS but to the Commissioner in charge of International Cooperation and Development has increased the perception of religious problems as particular to the most deprived parts of the world and does little to clarify the EU’s bureaucratic framework.

During Jan Figels’ first twelve-month period in office, the post gained a certain amount of visibility and took its place without major clashes in the institutional galaxy of the Community, but its real impact remains uncertain. The reappointment of the Special Envoy for an extra year announced in April 2017 did not resolve the ambiguities in his role or overcome resistance to it.