Secularists criticise supposed EU dialogue with non-believers as biased

Sophie in ‘t Veld MEP

This year’s Secularist of the Year winner, Sophie in ‘t Veld MEP, stormed out of a meeting at the European Parliament on Wednesday saying that it was biased against secularists and others who had no religious faith.

In an open letter to the Parliamentary President Jerzy Buzek after the meeting she explained:

“Today I attended the Seminar organised by you on “European Parliament implementation of Article 17 Lisbon Treaty”. In your absence, the meeting was chaired by Vice President Tokes [who is also a bishop of the Reformed Church of Romania], charged by the Bureau with relations with churches and secular organisations.

“I have to protest against the way this meeting was organised. I am afraid it does not qualify as an open and transparent dialogue, as required by Art 17 of the Treaty. I am appalled at the lack of respect for, and recognition of secular voices in Europe. The seminar does not reflect European values such as the freedom of conscience and freedom of religion and belief.

“The panel of speakers was made up of three representatives of different Grand Lodges, and the President of the European Humanist Federation. Though not in any way challenging the qualities of the panellists, the composition of the panel was limited and one sided, and not in any way representative and inclusive. The criteria for selecting the speakers and other participants remain unclear, despite repeated requests for clarification to your Cabinet. Many of the participants got their invitation just days before the meeting took place. I left the meeting, as I do not feel in these conditions a meaningful and sincere exchange could be held.

On December 13th 2010 and on July 12th 2011 I have written to you on behalf of the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics, regarding the implementation of Article 17 in the European Parliament in such a way that it reflects the full diversity of life stances in Europe. Please find the last letter attached again. I have yet to receive an answer to those letters.

I must state my strong disappointment at the way in which secular voices — whether of an atheist, agnostic or indeed religious background — are treated in this House. Indirectly it is an affront to those millions of citizens who are not represented in the Article 17 Dialogue.”

Michael Cashman MEP — like Ms in’t Veld, an honorary associate of the NSS — then criticised Bishop László Tőkés for having accepted responsibility for overseeing the dialogue because of the clear perception that any religious functionary (and indeed anyone with strong non-religious views) would be unable to fulfil the role objectively. He also attacked the Parliament’s lack of transparency by neither making available minutes of its meetings with religious leaders nor publishing the text of relevant speeches.

The baton was picked up at the meeting by Veronique de Keyser MEP who bemoaned the paucity of engagement with non-religious citizens compared with that of religious organisations. She clearly thought that Vice President Tőkés was being insensitive and he didn’t seem to understand the points that Sophie in ’t Veld and Michael Cashman had made.

Bishop Tőkés responded to these criticisms by saying that he did not have executive responsibility for this dialogue but had been tolerant. His critics on the other hand, he said, were intolerant, and had discriminated against him because of his clerical profession, something very dear to him, and he had not objected to anyone else’s occupation.

President Buzek had been seriously delayed so was only able to attend the last few minutes of the meeting. Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, who was also at the meeting, challenged him over these complaints. Mr Wood told the President of the level of anger expressed at the meeting before he arrived over the choice of the cleric to oversee this dialogue. Keith suggested that the choice had been particularly insensitive, doubly so given the already wide perception that the dialogue is heavily weighted in favour of the religious.

Keith then called on President Buzek to make sure that in future there was neutrality, presumably by appointing separate representatives to oversee the religious and non-confessional aspects of the dialogue, unless someone could be found who would be regarded as neutral by both camps, but that the latter seemed unlikely.

At a formal luncheon earlier that day, with Presidents Barroso, Buzek and Van Rompuy (of the European Commission, Parliament and Council of Ministers, respectively), Keith had made some remarks in anticipation of the later meeting, suggesting how the dialogue could be improved. He said:

“The clear spirit behind Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty is for community policy to be informed by the perspectives of those from the full spectrum of belief and indeed non-belief. The reality is quite different; the non-religious have relatively little influence in this dialogue. Despite their large and growing numbers, they are almost disenfranchised from it by not being, by their very nature, a homogenous or structured group. The many religiously unconcerned fare no better.

“Article 17 dialogue is dominated by the largest church, and to a degree other churches and religions. The influence of the largest churches is further strengthened by well-oiled and well-financed lobbying and communications, building on powerful historic links with decision makers. Crucially though, the positions taken by the largest churches on topics on which they lobby EU institutions the hardest are almost the opposite of the views of the millions in their pews. Polls conducted during the Pope’s visit to the UK last year showed, for example, that just 4% of UK Catholics agree with their hierarchy’s position on contraception and 11% on abortion and homosexuality.

“Policy should not be built on this misrepresentation and lack of representation, but should be evidence-based. I suggest an expansion of Eurobarometer surveys to establish a reliable basis for views on these sensitive social issues including sexual matters, start and end of life, and bioethics. Such survey data should to play a much greater role in policy formation.”

He repeated a summary of this at the later meeting.

See also: Secularists say EU privileging believers over non-believers