While it cannot be denied that the transparency and the perspective of people working in the EU institutions are regularly broadening for the better, it is also true that ‘institutionalised action’ expected as a result of the values expressed in the EU Fundamental Rights Charter, now 10 years after becoming a legally binding instrument, is far from ideal.
This is definitely the case as regards the rights associated with freedom of religion or belief, and non-discrimination based on religious affiliation.
One of the significant improvements in the exercise of the Charter in that field was the designation of a Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief – though it is notable that the Special Envoy’s mandate excludes any responsibility or authority to look within the European Member States with regard to their application of the rights developed in the Charter. In fact, both the UN Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Religion and Beliefs Ahmed Shaheed and Jan Figel, a Special Envoy for Promotion of Freedom of Religion outside the EU appointed by the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, have already stated in various interventions that the EU should be consistent with its policies, both internally and externally.
At the Faith and Freedom Summit event on 2 April in the EU Parliament, Figel said, external credibility that the EU needs is “to show coherence in external and internal policy”.
This also brings us to what the EU’s principal instruments are for dialogue with belief communities and institutions, which is Article 17 of the TFEU and which states that the Union respects all philosophical and non-confessional organisations equally and that it “shall maintain an open, transparent, and regular dialogue with these churches and organisations”.
The guidelines, however, for doing so are very vague and open to arbitrary interpretation and application of who and what they dialogue with and about. This has a negative effect on relations with minorities and needs to be remedied at once.
Humanists have also voiced their concern about this lack of transparency, recently concerning a leaked report from a senior Member of the European Parliament that proposed to give religious groups more control and input into EU legislation.
What is of particular concern is that if the Commission and other bodies of the European institutions favour dialogue with the main religious groups such as KEK and COMECE, which is good in itself, but keep at a minimum dialogue with other minorities, this might, on the one hand, reflect a certain proportionality of the population but on the other hand it does not reflect the principle of equal opportunity and treatment of minorities who have valid input and contribution to European society.
Whilst there is a valid argument that proportionality should grant larger groups more “say”, I also believe that new and minority groups, including the humanists or the Muslims, are not being received on the same terms as “traditionally established” religions of the EU. I also believe the “openness” of dialogue that both the Parliament and the Commission are meant to practice, is not that accessible to smaller groups, contrary to what their tasks oblige them to do and what the EU Fundamental Rights Charter preaches.
I feel the above could be because some officials may feel that interacting with certain ‘disfavoured’ groups – unlisted, yet somehow known as such through the administrative social culture – would leave them prone to the threat of the “will I lose my job?” syndrome. This syndrome, whilst not acceptable can be understood to exist in a climate where a kind of covert discrimination exists.
More trust and personal abidance with the EU Charter and the ECHR would increase personal integrity and courage, resulting in a far more equitable application of fundamental rights.
Europe, even if less so than before, still has this bad habit of not practising what it preaches. Of course, or at least I believe, life in Europe is generally freer and more benign than in many other areas of the world and provides more opportunities for people to live a life with the hope of achieving freedom according to their own ways of living.
Considering the history of Europe, however, and the role it plays around the world, I sincerely believe the current stasis is not enough because discrimination is still happening, because ‘selective religious correctness’ happens to be more important than defending the rights of certain minority groups; when the photo [or avoided photo] opportunity becomes more important than practising the dignity, freedoms, equality, solidarity, citizens’ rights, and justice proclaimed by the European Charter that are enshrined in the Treaty of Lisbon.
No politician, no administrator, no head of state, nor a person of any religion, belief, or political ideology should ever dare to discriminate against any person or group based on religious affiliation, in the same way, we must not discriminate as based on gender, sexual orientation ethnicity, etc. We should not allow it. They won’t dare, or at least won’t succeed if we stand together. They will have to either join groups that promote, defend, and protect these fundamental rights, or we will have to resign to their discriminatory and unjust agendas.
Will you fight alone for the rights of your own group? Will you fight with a small selected group abiding just by the selective religiously correct? Or will you defend dignity, freedoms, equality, solidarity, citizens’ rights, and justice for all?
I know that truth even if fought, always prevails. I know that sooner or later the values of the Charter will become closer to the fact. How fast we get there, will depend on how deeply-rooted our response is to the above questions and how fast we all make the choice we know is the right one. The choice and the speed will also reflect, positively or otherwise, on the number of days, months or years of unneeded and unjustified suffering.
If we chose rights, equality, and justice for all, we will be together on the side of the EU Fundamental Rights Charter. If you believe your answer needs a review, then I believe that this is good timing to do so. It is my wish that soon children in the streets and schools will be proud of the Europe that we are building together and in which they learn and live what is being called ‘European values’ – free from any discrimination and knowing that the same principles are also true inside the EU institutions.