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2nd Jul 2022

EU leaders dodge Islamic veil ban issue

  • An Orthodox Church in Ukraine - EU leaders met with around 20 representative from various religious communities (Photo: EUobserver)

EU leaders have declined to comment on moves to ban Islamic veils in some member states, saying that the controversial issue is one for national governments alone to handle.

Flanked by religious leaders from the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths, as well as representatives from the Sikh and Hindu communities on Monday (19 July), European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and president of the European Council Herman van Rompuy both dodged a question asking for their views on the matter.

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"This is not a European Union competence ... so as president of the commission I will not take a position on this issue," said Mr Barroso. Taking refuge in the "legal reading" of EU treaties, he said "we believe it is a national competence."

Mr Van Rompuy simply added "same answer."

Their reticence - at a meeting to discuss tackling poverty with religious representatives - comes despite the fact that the potential bans have raised burning questions about the interplay between religious freedom, individual rights and possible wider societal demands in Europe.

The lower houses in Belgium and France recently voted to ban the wearing of the full face veil such as the burqa or niqab in public while the Spain's parliament discussed the issue on Monday. Grounds cited for the ban include degradation of women and security reasons.

Opponents of the move point out that only tiny percentages of Muslim women wear such veils and that banning them risks isolating the women concerned and fuelling anger within the Muslim community.

The veil debate comes despite the fact that a broader debate on better integrating Muslims into educational, political and cultural life in Europe is largely left untouched. The divide is highlighted by Turkey's aspirations to join the EU. Its bid is foundering on, amongst other things, the fact that it is a predominantly Muslim country.

Mr Barroso and Mr Van Rompuy were more forthcoming on the topic of the day - the fight against poverty and social exclusion - which they discussed with around 20 religious representatives.

The commission president noted that over 80 million Europeans were "at risk of poverty." "Unemployment is the best tool to fight poverty but we must go beyond that," he added.

Both he and Mr Van Rompuy pointed to the years of experience that churches and religions have in caring for those at the margins of society, now even more threatened by the extent of the economic downturn in the Europe.

Mr Van Rompuy suggested that the financial crisis implies a "deeper crisis of values" and said that ensuring that the Union remains based on values is its "added value in the world."

Although Mr Barroso instigated a religious dialogue in 2005 and it is now a legal requirement under the EU's new Lisbon Treaty, in place since December, it is unclear what concrete effects such meetings will have.

Taking care to emphasize the poverty reduction element of the EU's new ten-year economic plan, Mr Barroso noted that is is not up to the EU institutions to give "subsidies" to religious organisations but to take on board some ideas where possible.

Cardinal Erdö, President of CCEE (Council of European Bishops Conferences) said that the clause in the Lisbon Treaty promising "open, transparent and regular dialogue" with religious organisations had not yet been "fully implemented."

Jerzy Buzek, head of the European Parliament, noted that he would be meeting Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox leaders at the end of September to discuss how to make best use of the treaty article.

The original version of this article mistakenly attributed the quote about the Lisbon Treaty's Article 17 on religious dialogue not yet being fully implemented to the President of the Commission of the Bishops' Conference of the European Community, Monsignor Adrianus van Luyn. It should have referred to Cardinal Erdö, President of CCEE (Council of European Bishops Conferences).

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