The churches’ campaign for special rights in the EU

The churches’ determination to exert influence over the European Union and its member states dates from long before the debate of the last few years over a constitution for Europe.

Stage One

In March 1996, during the preparation of the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) in Turin, a note was given to the ambassadors of EU countries accredited to the State of the Holy See. It said:

The Holy See declares that the following objectives should be reached:

  • emphasize the contribution of the Churches and religions to the development of Europe
  • maintain the relations between the Churches and the States as they are within the Member States
  • avoid that one system of relations between Church and State could supplant another
  • root the relations between Church and State in the Community Law
  • avoid any discrimination against Churches and religions with regard to other social movements already appreciated on a Community level
  • protect the competence of States in their present relations with Churches and religions.

This document was not taken into consideration by the European Council of Ministers on the grounds that the Holy See was not part of the European Union.

Stage Two

Some time later, the delegations of three Member States of the European Union (Germany on one side, Italy and Austria on another side), followed by Portugal, introduced to the Dutch Presidency of the Union a proposition to include into the Rome Treaty, during the Amsterdam IGC of 1997, a specific mention of the place of the Churches in the European cultural heritage and of their own particular status.

Article F, on Fundamental Rights, should, according to this proposal, have been completed as follows:

“The Union shall respect the constitutional status of religious communities in the Member States as a manifestation of the identity of the Member States and their cultures and as part of the common cultural heritage”.

The Intergovernmental Conference adopted, not an addition to Article F on fundamental rights as suggested by the four member countries, but a “declaration to be inserted into the final act” (declaration 11):

“The Union respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of the churches and religious associations or communities in the Member States”.

But for good measure and to avoid any indignant reactions, there was an addition to the declaration:

“The Union equally respects the status of philosophical and non-confessional organisations”.

Stage Three

President Prodi created the Group of Policy Advisors to the President (GOPA), a team of diplomats charged with the regulation of the future relations between the Churches and the European Institutions.

The GOPA asked certain Churches to submit, before the end of June 2002, proposals to establish “a structured dialogue between the Churches, religious communities and the European Commission”.

In June 2002, a joint response was addressed to Dr. Weninger of GOPA by COMECE (the Commission of the [Roman Catholic] Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community) and of CEC (the Conference of European [Protestant and Orthodox] Churches). The objective of the Churches, in this unpublished document is very precise and aims at organising:

  • a pre-legislative consultation procedure “enabling Churches and religious communities . . to comment on planned legislation”
  • regular dialogue seminars between COMECE, CEC and GOPA
  • working sessions “on more specific issues whenever the churches . . . have a particular concern”
  • presidential-level meetings between the President of the European Commission and high level representatives of the Churches
  • a liaison office within the services of the Commission, in order to develop a “partnership” with the Commission.

This text shows how to understand the meaning of the word “dialogue” in these proposals. It amounts to institutionalisation of the right of the Churches to interfere in the institutions of the European Union, in line with the 1996 request from the Vatican. In effect, the Churches were demanding a position in the European Union similar to the one enjoyed by the Vatican in the United Nations.

Stage Four

The Convention for the Future of Europe, chaired by Giscard d’Estaing, produced proposals for a Constitution for the European Union which incorporated the wording of the Amsterdam declaration (this was originally Article 37, then 51 and finally 52 before the constitutional treaty was finally dropped in favour of the Lisbon treaty) and called for a “regular dialogue” between the EU and the churches etc. The requirement that the dialogue also be transparent and open (as with the dialogue with civil society organisations) came later, partly as a result of our campaigning.

During the debate on the constitution, the churches contrived to distract attention from the substantive provision of this Article to the idea of a declaration in the Preamble to the Constitution that Europe’s values were rooted in Christianity. This proposal was finally rejected, just as later was the proposal by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, as Council president, to include a reference to Christianity in the Berlin Declaration she produced for the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. However, despite the efforts of secularists and humanists across Europe, the Article remained unchanged thereafter and was inserted as it stood into the Lisbon treaty – but significantly it was promoted to the section “General Provisions” from its original position under the heading “Democratic Participation” along with civil society organisations.

Throughout the time that the proposal has been under discussion, the Commission has acted as if it were already in effect. There has been a regular (if not open or transparent) dialogue with the churches, with meetings, seminars at EU expense. Token meetings with the EHF were conceded after pressure in the European Parliament.

Stage Five

However, once the Lisbon Treaty had been politically accepted but before it was ratified, the Vatican in particular began demanding even greater privileges than had already been conceded. At a plenary meeting of COMECE on 21 November 2007, Mgr Adrianus van Luyn, Bishop of Rotterdam and COMECE President, summarised conveniently the privileges they already enjoy and pronounced them insufficient.

First there were “seminars which the European Commission has been arranging for years on fundamental issues with church representatives”.

Next there were “the traditional talks between [church] representatives and the church in question with governments in the framework of their six-monthly EU Council Presidency”

And there were “the . . . key talks of the last three years, to which leading religious representatives were invited by the presidents of the European institutions”. As he reported, the latest of these took place on 15 May 2007 with the three presidents of the Parliament, Council and Commission; and he said “a similar summit is planned for the end of April, beginning of May” 2008.

The COMECE president went on to say:

“These talks are indeed necessary but they alone are in our view not enough to satisfy the offer of an open, transparent and regular dialogue. . .

Entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty will enhance recognition of the relationships between Church and state at Member State level and the EU’s dialogue with churches and religious communities at the primary law level of the European Union.

This is why one should now start giving real thought to the form of this dialogue”.

And he proceeded to list a dozen deep questions that will lead to their formulation of their further demands for a privileged place in the inner councils of the EU. The complete text of the relevant section of his speech is reproduced below.

COMECE and CEC then consulted on what they would propose under the new Treaty and in the spring of 2010 they made their new submission to the EU. They started by stressing the religious basis of their contribution (“grounded in the gospel . . . the earth as God’s creation . . . each human being is created in God’s image. . .”) before going on to demand a “deepening and widening” of “existing dialogue practices”. They welcomed a resolution of the European Parliament that one-sidedly “stresse[d] that . . . there needs to be an open, transparent and regular dialogue between the Union and churches and religious communities” and they proposed that they be called routinely as witnesses at Parliamentary hearings. They proposed that the dialogue be extended from the Commission, Council and Parliament to all the EU’s numerous agencies. They looked for “a further increase in the already high level of readiness of EU civil servants or politicians to engage in a dialogue with the churches”. The dialogue should be both collective and with individual churches. There should be “common content preparation prior to the events” and collaboration on any follow-up. And in line with their previous demand for pre-legislative consultation, they proposed an annual meeting “in due time before the Commission unveils its strategy for the coming year and its legislative and work programme”.

The prospect is therefore for this deeper, wider engagement of the churches in EU affairs on a scale that will be difficult to monitor, let alone to counter.

COMECE President’s Speech

The following is the complete relevant section from the Bishop of Rotterdam’s 2007 speech, which is on the COMECE website:

2.3. Dialogue with the political authorities of the European Union

I would like to conclude with a third form of dialogue, namely the dialogue with the political authorities of the European Union. Even though there is a long tradition of friendly contact between the Catholic Church and representatives of the European institutions via and alongside COMECE, it is only recently that this dialogue has been somewhat formalised. Alongside the seminars which the European Commission has been arranging for years on fundamental issues with church representatives in Brussels and the traditional talks between these representatives and the church in question with governments in the framework of their six-monthly EU Council Presidency, I am thinking here first and foremost of the three key talks of the last three years, to which leading religious representatives were invited by the presidents of the European institutions. The last of these key talks took place on 15 May this year and for the first time, the presidents of the Parliament, Council and Commission took part. Next year, a similar summit is planned for the end of April, beginning of May.

I would like – contrary to some previous criticism – to give a clear welcome to these talks. They bear testament to the way the EU has come to value representatives of the Church and religious communities more, and those who – like me – have been working for some years at COMECE, no doubt remember the difficulties of earlier years, which were marked by the institutions not acknowledging us. This does not mean that the key talks could not be even better organised and, for example, some thought given to the number of church representatives and religious communities. These talks are indeed necessary but they alone are in our view not enough to satisfy the offer of an open, transparent and regular dialogue.

Dear brethren, an entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty will enhance recognition of the relationships between Church and state at Member State level and the EU’s dialogue with churches and religious communities at the primary law level of the European Union. This is why one should now start giving real thought to the form of this dialogue. This is first of all the task of the European institutions and the Commission in particular. However, as COMECE we are of course prepared to discuss our views and ideas as well as our questions in preparatory talks on the dialogue of the EU with churches and religious communities.

We are faced primarily with questions! What is meant by the “Union”, when the treaty states that the Union is leading a dialogue? Are all European institutions intended? What role will the future permanent President of the European Council play? How can the European Parliament be involved? How can the adjectives “open, transparent and regular”, with which the dialogue is described, be more closely defined? Who are the churches and religious communities? What are the selection criteria? Can the subsidiarity principle be sufficiently respected in a dialogue between the EU and communities with different world views given that it is only anchored in the constitution of one Member State? Can a distinction be made between various levels of dialogue? How can the selection of themes of the dialogue be more systematically arranged? How can it be guaranteed that the dialogue is not reduced, wrongly and inadmissibly restrictive, to two partners: political representatives on the one hand and religious representatives on the other? Is it not important to continue the existing bilateral contacts of one church or religious community with the EU, like the meeting that the German Minister of the Interior organised during the German Council Presidency or the biannual talks between the churches with the changing Council presidencies? As you can see, there are many open questions and the time it takes to ratify the Lisbon treaty should be used to find as many acceptable solutions as possible for all interested parties. I repeat therefore the offer to participate in talks.