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7th Dec 2019

Atheists say EU privileging religious leaders over non-believers

  • St Peter's dome in The Vatican: non-theists say believers get too much of a say (Photo: flip.and.serena)

The European Union is keen to involve religious leaders in a policy dialogue, as required by the EU treaties, while consultations with atheists appear to be more of a chore that Brussels is resigned to, representatives of European secularist organisations are complaining.

At the second annual 'summit' in Brussels between the three presidents of the European Union and representatives of atheist groups and freemasons, the secularists demanded to be put on an equal footing with faith communities.

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"There is a clear preference for consultations with religious representatives," the head of the European Humanist Federation, David Pollock, told EUobserver.

Under pressure from church groups, and in particular from the Vatican, efforts to involve religious leaders in the crafting of legislation were surprisingly successful with the passage of the Lisbon Treaty, which, under its Article 17, requires a regular dialogue with religious associations, but also with "philosophical and non-confessional organisations".

"We are also concerned about the need for the EU's interpretation of Article 17 to be conducted in a more balanced way," Pollock continued.

"They spend much longer with the religious leaders," he added. "We are kept completely in the dark about how anybody is selected for these meetings. There is no consultation about the subject areas, about who is invited. We do not feel as though we have any ownership over the process at all. There needs to be a new start."

There are also no minutes of the meetings with the religious leaders, nor records of the speeches given by the presidents.

Beyond the regular summits that the three presidents hold with church, temple and mosque leaders, for a number of years, the European Commission has also held 'dialogue seminars' with the two conferences of European bishops.

However, when the European Humanist Federation (EHF) requested a similar dialogue seminar with the commission, on the topic of religious exemptions from EU laws and anti-discrimination legislation, the EU executive refused, saying that the subject lay outside its area of responsibility.

The EU ombudsman on 23 November subsequently requested the commission to explain why it had rejected the proposal for a seminar. The commission must reply by February next year.

According to the EHF, church groups are now pushing for the Article 17 dialogue with them to be "stretched to all levels" beyond the summits and dialogue seminars, with "working contacts" and "quick and efficient exchanges of views" on all subjects. There has also been a request for the establishment of a special office in the European Parliament to deal with religions.

Following the meeting Pollock said that he had been "provisionally reassured" by a commitment by European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso to take into account the concerns.

The atheist contingent at the meeting was also wondered why there is such an emphasis on the presence of freemasons. Ten out of the 16 invited came from masons' lodges from different countries. Only six individuals were invited from expressly non-theist organisations.

"While the continental freemasons are distinctly secular, we do question the balance in these meetings. The last meeting, three quarters of those there were freemasons," Pollock added.

At a hearing in the European Parliament later in the day on the implementation of Article 17, MEP Sophie in 't Veld, the head of the chamber's European Platform for Secularism in Politics complained that letters from the platform about how the summit had been organised had gone unanswered.

Vice-president of the parliament Laszlo Tokes, who also stressed the atheist nature of the Stalinist dictatorships of eastern Europe, said that he had not seen any letters and subsequently prevented in 't Veld from speaking, saying that her worries should not be voiced until the president of the parliament, Jerzy Buzek, was present in the room.

Atheists fear for democracy in Europe

The secular summit took as its theme democracy and pluralism in the EU.

According to commission spokesman Jens Mester, those present used the occasion to express their concern that democracy is under threat within the EU in the face of the economic crisis.

"A general concern by really most participants whas that in the current crisis, there is a risk that democratic values and liberties are being downgraded," he said.

"There is a worry that there is an increasing separation of the institutions from ordinary people, about the increased powers being assumed by technocrats especially in the context of the current crisis, about what has happened in Greece and Italy," Pollock explained.

"But there is a broader feeling of a disconnect, that with what Europe is going through, democracy is being curtailed. People feel that they have no control over Europe, that everything is being decided for them, without their input," he said. "There is a need for politicians to get back in charge and reassert democracy in Europe."

The three presidents responded with "general reassurances" that democratic values inform all of their work, according to those in the room.

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