Secularism under siege

  • post Type / Action Alert
  • Date / 13 February 2007

As was widely expected, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is using the current six-month German presidency of the EU to revive the project for a European constitution – with God included. The Churches have been quick to climb on the bandwagon, urging that references to God and “our Judeo-Christian heritage” be included in any new draft. But while welcoming the Churches’ involvement, German Foreign Minister Frans-Walter Steinmeier has told MEPs to stay out of the constitutional process. Now the secularists are fighting back. In an unprecedented collaboration between politicians, academics, writers and community leaders from across the continent, Europe’s secularists have drafted The Brussels Declaration, a restatement of the common values on which modern European civilisation is based. The Brussels Declaration is due to be launched at the European Parliament on 27th February. The campaign has a web site at www.visionforeurope.org

Following her visit in August to Pope Benedict XVI, Merkel expressed her support for a “God clause” in the constitution. She said, “We need a European identity in the form of a constitutional treaty and I think it should be connected to Christianity and God, as Christianity has forged Europe in a decisive way.” Central to Chancellor Merkel’s project is the “Berlin Declaration”, a statement of principles to be fed into the creation of a new European constitution.

Merkel has asked all EU heads of government to nominate a “trusted advisor” to contribute to the Berlin Declaration, but members of the European Parliament have been warned not to get involved. According to the EU Observer: “Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the European Parliament’s constitutional affairs committee on 23 January that MEPs will not have any major role in the EU’s constitution revival project. He warned deputies not to pick fights with national governments over who serves Europe better, or try to overshadow Berlin’s efforts to revive the EU charter, saying ‘there is no point if the professionals in Europe are competing with one another for the welfare of Europe’s citizens’. His words were in response to a plea by MEPs to involve them more in the renewed talks on the constitution, with euro-deputies threatened with being locked out of the high-level discussions over the coming year. ‘We need to place trust in one another for a few months,’ he said, adding that MEPs should not ‘organise the discussion’ in such a way as to make the parliament look like it is being opposed. For their part, MEPs were reduced to pleading for representation”.

The Foreign Minister’s remarks however were in sharp contrast to his words of encouragement to Europe’s church leaders. At a meeting with representatives of the European churches in January, he said: “Churches have a specific role in the European integration process” adding: “Churches [are] important partners in their national contexts in discussions on common European values and the future of the European integration process. In many countries, churches create awareness about European issues and contribute to a European culture.” According to a news item by COMECE, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, “Steinmeier highlighted the churches’ role in the context of the Berlin Declaration to be presented for adoption on 25 March to the EU heads of state and government, and in light of a revitalized discussion around the Constitutional Treaty”.

The danger here is obvious. Any treaty that confuses the undoubted role of the Churches in European history with its frequently negative role in the creation of modern European civilization is likely to be hugely divisive in the context of modern Europe.

Pressure already exists in many states for different laws for minorities, based on their differing values. A sectarian Constitution that highlights Europe’s supposed Judeo-Christian heritage can only serve to exacerbate cultural differences. Demands among Europe’s minorities already range from codifying cultural differences into family law, to an outright acceptance of Sharia law for Muslims. A recent survey by NOP showed that some 30% of British Muslims would prefer to live under Sharia Law. Among young Muslims the percentage was even higher.

Secularism has also been under attack from Pope Benedict XVI. Even before he became pope, he claimed in 2004 that the “forces of secularism” were fostering intolerance in Europe and forcing Christianity underground, saying that the liberal consensus had now evolved into a “worrying and aggressive” ideology.

Senior bishops in England have also attacked secularism, like the pope seemingly unable to distinguish between state neutrality and hostility to religion, and failing to recognize that a secular state is the only guarantee of religious freedom for all.

But European Secularists are fighting back. A group under the leadership of IHEU, the European Humanist Federation, Catholics for a Free Choice and the European Parliament All-Party Group on Separation of Religion and Politics, has drafted a new Secular Vision for Europe. The centrepiece of the Vision is the “Brussels Declaration”, a one-page restatement of our common values, the liberal values of individual freedom, democracy and the rule of law on which modern European civilization is based. They are not the values of a single culture or tradition but are our shared values, common to all of the cultures that make up modern Europe: the values that enable Europeans from every background to live together in peace and harmony.

The Brussels Declaration is the outcome of an unprecedented Europe-wide collaboration between academics, politicians, writers, community leaders and both secular and religious non-governmental organisations. It has already been endorsed by hundreds of European political and religious leaders, academics, Nobel prize-winners and dozens of MEPs.

The Declaration is available in English, French, German, Swedish, Dutch, Polish, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Hungarian and Latvian at: www.visionforeurope.org

Later this week, we will highlight just some of the European leaders and organizations who have endorsed it.

The Declaration will be formally launched at the European Parliament in Brussels on 27 February 2007, ahead of the 50th Anniversary celebrations of the signing of the Treaty of Rome on 25 March.

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