During the morning of Monday 30th May, the EU presidents (there are three!) hosted their annual discussion and lunch with religious leaders.
The meeting took place in Brussels – you can read more about it here.
This was described as “a dialogue about the dialogue”. Dialogue is not my favourite word – but dialogue² turned out to be familiar and fascinating in turn.
Article 17 sets out the EU’s responsibilities thus:
1. The Union respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of churches and religious associations or communities in the Member States.
2. The Union equally respects the status under national law of philosophical and non-confessional organisations.
3. Recognising their identity and their specific contribution, the Union shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with these churches and organisations.
This was the first meeting open to religious (and multifaith) groups to have a look at what this might mean in practice and, as we discussed at our last meeting, LBFN was pleased to be there.
Familiar: the usual tussle over representation – it’s much easier to communicate with a few people who are near the top of large hierarchical organisations (eg the Church of England) than with hundreds of smaller religious groups which have flatter organisational structures and a complex pattern of relating to each other (eg newer Christian denominations, some of the minority faith traditions in Europe). The default position of talking only to leaders of major religious & philosophical organisations means that quite a few people are left out – for example, women (there were no women at all on the panel at the afternoon meeting). What kind of structure would allow good all-round communications without getting bogged down in an absurdly large bureaucracy?
Also familiar were the questions around the inclusion of religious and philosophical groups in the same discussions – this is an area where LBFN members have skills.
Both these concerns touch on recognition as well as representation – again, LBFN members have experience of this at local level, particularly when it comes to discussions about public policy with local government and public agencies.
Fascinating: I was interested to know *why* the EU wanted to maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with religious communities and philosophical and non-confessional organisations. Several EU policy areas were mentioned, along with a desire to promote the peaceful co-existence of these communities in Europe, to protect religious freedom (as part of a more general concern for the protection of human rights and dignity) and a recognition that a good understanding of religion and belief needed to underpin the EU’s foreign policy and development aid.
But I was impressed that the first step that the EU Parliament’s President Jerzy Buzek and Vice-President László Tőkés have taken in sorting out *how* it is to be done has been to bring together many of the people who are likely to be involved – and ask them. Bravo!
The emerging European Religion & Belief Network, which LBFN is involved in shaping, could play a useful part by contributing the experience and expertise of practitioners within grass-roots multifaith and intercultural groups across the continent. In order to do this effectively, members of the new network will need to know about each other and be in touch – exchange visits, online communications, meeting up from time to time.
LBFN, along with other members of the new network (a great bunch which includes a wide range of religious and philosophical traditions, including the UK’s All Faiths & None), has now been represented at four meetings with officials within the European institutions.
A gathering of the new network is likely to be held in Brussels in early December [now more likely to be May 2012] – let me know if you’re interested or have suggestions for this (the planning meeting will be towards the end of this month). A meeting in London, bringing together those who are interested in the new network, is planned for June [now fixed for 28th November].