Humanists : difficult dialogue with European Commission

28 October 2011

On 19 October 2011 the European Humanist Federation sent a complaint to the Ombudsman about the refusal of the EU Commission to meet them in a “dialogue seminar”.

The EHF accused the European Commission of refusing to comply with the Lisbon Treaty and of discrimination against non-confessional organisations.

Article 17:3 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union requires that European institutions conduct an “open, transparent and regular dialogue” with churches, religious associations or communities, philosophical and non-confessional organisations. The Commission for many years routinely conducted ‘dialogue seminars’ with the churches at the exclusion of non-confessional organisations. 

In March 2011, the EHF proposed a dialogue seminar to discuss the problems arising from religious exemptions in EU directives against discriminations but the Commission refused to discuss the subject on the grounds that is was going “beyond the spirit of Article 17”. The EHF made several attempts to obtain a shift in the Commission’s position, culminating in a letter to President Barroso, which produced no result. The EHF was left with no other choice than lodging a complaint to the EU ombudsman, Mr Nikiforos Diamandouros.

The Ombudsman received it and sent a number of questions to the Commission on its compliance with the Lisbon Treaty. He asked the Commission to submit an opinion on EHF’s claim and, interestingly, to comment on what guidelines determine whom the Commission decides to talk to under Article 17 and on what topics. 

As former EHF President David Pollock commented : ““The EHF is very pleased with the questions put to the Commission. Beyond our specific request, there is a clear need for transparent guidelines as to how the Commission conducts this dialogue. So far, this lack of transparency has undeniably profited to the Churches”.

The EU Commission then answered to the Ombudsman and the EHF stood firm in its response to these comments.

Finally, in January 2013, the Ombudsman closed the inquiry and gave a positive answer to our complaint. His conclusions are the following :

By rejecting the complainant’s proposal for a dialogue seminar, on the grounds that this would go beyond the spirit of Article 17 TFEU, the Commission failed properly to implement Article 17(3) TFEU, according to which the EU is obliged to “maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue” with churches, religious associations or communities, philosophical and non-confessional organisations. This constitutes an instance of maladministration.”

 Taking account the Ombudsman’s findings, the Commission should clarify its practices and rules in this area, and, if necessary draw up guidelines indicating how exactly it plans to implement Article 17 TFEU.

The EHF welcomed the EU ombudsman’s decision and hopes it will lead to a more balanced approach towards humanists in the implementation of Article 17.

Read our full reaction.


Details of EHF’s complaint  :

The EHF’s complaint to the Ombudsman

to which were attached:

  • an attachment referred to in (f) regarding the EU Council’s Spanish Presidency’s conference in Cordoba.

- The Commission’s webpage about the Article 17 dialogue with “religion, churches and communities of conviction”.

- Evidence of the Commission’s competence in the areas proposed for the dialogue seminar (see below).

- The source for our claim that the Commission official in charge of non-discrimination is aware of the difficulties: a report of a meeting of the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics which was addressed by Fernando Pereira, the acting head of the unit for non-discrimination in the Commission’s directorate-general for justice.

- Information about the European Humanist Federation and the size of the non-religious population in Europe (see below).

- Details of the exemptions for religion in the EU non-discrimination directives (see below).

- The EHF’s press release of 19 October 2011.

The press release  also available in DutchFrenchGerman and Italian.  For coverage in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, see here (page 1) and here (page 8).


Evidence of the Commission’s competence in the areas proposed for the dialogue seminar

The Commission’s competence is evident from:

(a) directive 2000/78 on employment equality

(b) its proposed directive on equality and non-discrimination

(c) the existence of the Charter of Fundamental Rights

(d) the existence of the Fundamental Rights Agency

(e) the appointment by President Barroso himself of a commissioner for fundamental rights

(f) the funding by the EU of the Religare project looking precisely at the questions of the place of religion in society that the EHF wishes to discuss (and has already written about in a detailed submission to Religare).


The European Humanist Federation and the non-religious population in Europe

The EHF has over 50 member organisations in 21 countries, from Spain to Russia and from Norway to Romania. It unites humanist and secularist organizations across Europe, supporting human rights, promoting the principle of state secularism and contesting discrimination against non-believers.

The non-religious are a very significant proportion of Europeans:

  • Only 52% of Europeans believe in God; 18% reject outright even the idea of ‘some sort of spirit or life force’ – Eurobarometer 2005. Similar results are found by both popular and academic surveys.
  • 46% think that religion has too important a place in society - Eurobarometer 2007.
  • When asked to pick up to three from a list of twelve ‘values’, people in Europe place religion last: only 6% choose religion as important to them personally – and only 3% see it as a value representative of the EU – Eurobarometer 2011.


Exemptions for religion in the EU non-discrimination directives

The exemptions are found:

(a) in the Directive 2000/78/EC barring discrimination in employment, which has wide exemptions for religious organisations (see Article 4) which have often been exploited to the full, even to allow religious organisations to discriminate on grounds of sexuality and certainly to bar many jobs to people having the wrong or no religion – e.g., in education, health and other public services delivered by religious bodies on behalf of public authorities; and

(b) in the draft Directive barring discrimination in the supply of goods and services which at Article 3 would give a blanket exemption to all religious organisations:

This Directive is without prejudice to national legislation . . . concerning the status and activities of churches and other organisations based on religion or belief.

This would allow such organisations, even when delivering public services under contract to and on behalf of a public authority, to discriminate on grounds of religion or sexuality. Much litigation is being pursued by militant religious organisations (for example, the UK’s Christian Legal Centre) to extend even further the current exemptions by painting a false picture of alleged ‘persecution’. Any exemptions in the new Directive and related legislation need therefore to be drawn very tightly if they are not to be abused.