Will European Parliament resist institutionalisation of religious lobbying?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Pro-life protesters march against abortion, in Paris on 19 January 2014. [EPA/IAN LANGSDON]

In a time of growing diversity, secularism is the very principle that caters for the co-existence of the multitude of life stances and worldviews present in our societies. Yet, attempts to undermine it emanate at the highest level of the European Parliament.
Secularism is a key principle of the European project, writes Giulio Ercolessi.

Giulio Ercolessi is the president of the European Humanist Federation, the largest umbrella of humanist associations in Europe, promoting a secular Europe, defending equal treatment of everyone regardless of religion or belief.

In the words of the European Parliament itself, “secularism, defined as the strict separation between non-confessional political authorities and religious authorities, as well as the impartiality of the State, are the best means of guaranteeing non-discrimination and equality between religions and between believers and non believers.”

On a continent where a large proportion of the population has explicitly or implicitly left religion aside and where growing minorities follow non-Christian religions, it is wrong to revert to political arrangements that give a special position to the churches or to religion at large – or even to religious and non-religious lifestances, however inclusive that might seem: politics and religion should be kept apart.

Yet, in 2007, as EU leaders were negotiating the Lisbon Treaty, churches obtained the adoption of Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which commits the EU to maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with churches and non-confessional philosophical organizations.

Wrongly, this created a mechanism that grants churches, religious and non-confessional philosophical organizations special status compared to the rest of civil society.

Now, while most MEPs are busy campaigning in their circumscriptions, a new episode of the institutionalization of the influence of religious organisations over the European Parliament’s work seems to be about to be written, and especially that of the Catholic Church, which clearly has the most resources within the concerned actors.

Today, away from the spotlight and without any kind of consultation with the rest of the European Parliament, let alone society at large, the EP Bureau will consider adopting a report that would open entirely new ways for religious organisations and churches to influence the legislative work of the European Parliament.

Leading this endeavour is Vice-President Mairead McGuiness, who was in charge of overseeing for this legislature the implementation of Article 17 by the Parliament. She recently drafted a report following a consultation she conducted within the very limited and unevenly distributed community of so-called Article 17 dialogue partners.

As the main non-confessional organisation in Europe, the European Humanist Federation (EHF) was invited to share its views in writing before taking part in a meeting together with religious stakeholders on 19 February.

A few weeks later, the EHF is deeply concerned to see that the report (which is not public) does not accurately reflect the debates that took place in that meeting. It rather is an endorsement of the requests made by Catholic organisations.

Among the most worrisome proposals is the one put forward by the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, the Vatican’s political lobby in Brussels, to involve Article 17 partners further into the European Parliament’s legislative work by organising meetings “with the Rapporteurs and Shadows on a given file”.

These meetings would be “facilitated by the Article 17 secretariat in cooperation with the relevant committee secretariat” thereby providing religious lobbying privileged access at the detriment of other experts or constituencies who would not benefit from such institutional backing.

Rolling out the red carpet to religious groups and their views questioning rights that society has fought so hard to secure is not acceptable. At various occasions, the European Parliament raised its voice to protect the very rights that religious lobbying regularly endangers and encouraged member states and the Commission to build a safer society for women, LGBTI people and minorities.

Imagine planned parenthood experts having more hurdles to present their facts-based expertise on maternal health and comprehensive sexuality education than representatives of various faiths pushing their dogmatic views on the question. Or LGBTI groups being disadvantaged compared to religious leaders.

Another proposal of the report that further undermines secularism is to facilitate the contribution of churches to EU legislation at national level by involving the European Parliament liaison offices as facilitators.

Article 17 was not designed to be used as a lobbying instrument, and rightly so. The EU and its institutions do need expertise from civil society but why privilege one type of organization over others?

A secular state is not an anti-religious state, but one where public debate is not shaped by one dominant set of beliefs. A secular society addresses disagreements and seeks compromise via rational public debate conducted in the spirit of critical thinking, not privileged access to policy-makers.

If religious organisations want to lobby the European Parliament, it is their right to do so.

However, such lobbying should be done in a transparent manner and on equal footing, safeguarding a level playing field with all other civil society organizations so that the ensuing legislation is the result of a pluralistic public debate, not the reflection of the dogmatic views of religious organisations.

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