Advocates of a liberal, secular Europe worry for the future

Source

AROUND 15 years ago, when the machinery of the European Union was being refashioned into its present form, one of the hottest debates concerned what role, if any, would be set aside for God. The Vatican and some mainly Catholic states, like Poland, wanted theistic language in the EU’s constitutional treaty; a secular camp led by France was opposed. In the end, the nearest thing to a spiritual reference was a statement in the treaty’s preamble that signatories were “drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe…”

In another clunky compromise, Article 17 of the subsequent Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union obliges the EU’s institutions to conduct an “open, transparent and regular” dialogue with churches and other religious groups, and also with philosophical and non-confessional organisations. On the secular side, the European Humanist Federation, grouping about 60 smaller bodies in more than 20 countries, is the EU’s main interlocutor. It counterbalances the advisory role of outfits like the Conference of European Churches, which is mainly Protestant and Orthodox, and COMECE, the Catholic bishops’ group. Both those bodies maintain active lobbying operations around the EU’s institutions.

The religious types and the secularists are still squabbling about how much access they should enjoy to the upper echelons of the Euro-bureaucracy. In recent weeks a tempest erupted in the teacups of Strasbourg when it emerged that Mairead McGuinness, an Irish politician who is one of the European Parliament’s vice-presidents, had mooted the idea of intensifying the legislature’s exchanges with Article 17 partners. Instead of merely attending three seminars a year, they might be invited to meet officials involved in the planning of parliamentary business, enabling them to flag up matters of concern.

Ms McGuiness adamantly insisted that these proposals, leaked by an investigative reporter, Sian Norris, were merely being floated, and that any enhanced access would be granted in equal measure to religious and secular groups. But Virginie Rozière, a French MEP and staunch advocate of secularism, said it was “completely crazy” to contemplate any change that boosted the churches’ role.

Despite this sparring, the pompous expression “cultural, religious and humanist inheritance” does actually correspond to something real. Whether they are on the Christian Democratic centre-right or the generally more secularist centre-left, most European politicians, and ultimately their voters, have in recent years shared many common ideals: a belief in a universal franchise, freedom of speech, the rule of law and due process, and antipathy to racism. In their understanding of Europe’s past, some would emphasise the Judaeo-Christian inheritance, while others would stress the struggle against clerical authority proclaimed by the Enlightenment. But none would aspire to re-impose Christianity by top-down methods. After all, the advent of Christian Democracy after 1945 marked a final break with Christian authoritarianism.

Despite all that, the delegates who met in Iceland recently for the annual gathering of the European Humanist Federation saw troubling portents on the horizon. A whole range of threats to the enlightened order were cited by Giulio Ercolessi, an Italian liberal who is the federation’s president. As he put it:

Human Rights, individual liberties, the rule of law, the secular character of our institutions and the very idea of constitutional democracy are under attack, in the world and also in our continent…Scientific achievements that have made our lives healthier and easier in the last decades are called into question…Religious fundamentalism conspires [to use] religious traditions as weapons to be brandished against newcomers, in the hands of fear-mongers of the worst sort…

One of the developments that troubles Mr Ercolessi and his fellow humanists is the rise across Europe of the populist, xenophobic right, which often dresses itself in religious or Christian-nativist clothing, even though its leaders are not usually very devout. Parties of roughly that stripe have already taken centre-stage in Hungary, Italy and Austria. In last month’s European elections the nationalist right made substantial gains in Britain and France. Such parties are not, in general, openly opposed to liberal democracy or the rule of law; but some of their supporters are less than respectful of those values.

It may be a sign of the times that Europe’s most important Christian Democrat, Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, felt obliged to say, in an interview with CNN after the European ballot: “We have to face up to the spectres of the past...we have to tell our young people what history has brought us... why we are for democracy, why we stand up against intolerance [and] why we show no tolerance of violations of human rights.”

Mr Ercolessi was also preoccupied with a less obvious consequence of the current wave of migration into Europe. Given that many of the new arrivals are from countries dominated by Islam or other conservative religious beliefs, he detected a widespread concern even on the European centre-left that waves of migration might increase the number of ultra-conservative immigrant micro-communities, portending a “new obscurantism” on the continent. Such fears were palpable across the political spectrum in France and the Netherlands, said Mr Ercolessi. As a result, anti-immigrant sentiments could be heard even from progressive politicians.

The best way to counter all this, in Mr Ercolessi’s view, is to showcase an important but neglected fact: many of the new arrivals in Europe are not bringing ultra-conservative religion with them, but fleeing from it. These include at least some people from the Middle East who face persecution because they are LGBT or atheist or members of a religious minority.

In short, the influx of newcomers from poor and often brutal places, and the complex political consequences of that influx, are a challenge to Europe’s “cultural, religious and humanist inheritance” as the treaty-writers, with a mixture of political expediency and inspiration, described it. People of many different metaphysical beliefs will be needed to defend that inheritance.