MEPs and representatives of NGOs including IHEU, the National Secular Society and the European Humanist Federation made up a large audience to hear the President of the Parliament, Hans Gert Pottering, when he visited the European Parliament’s All Party Working Group on Separation of Religion and Politics yesterday.
Sophie in’t Veld, chair of the Group, set out a series of questions for Mr Pottering to address. In reply, he showed a commitment to human rights and a promising openness to the idea of humanists being included in EU dialogues involving religious leaders. He said that he favoured secular EU institutions that were not biased towards any religion or belief. He strongly favoured dialogue aimed at better understanding and tolerance. Something similar to the draft Constitution’s Article 52 would be in the new EU treaty: the dialogue it proposed between the Christian churches, other religions and non-confessional groups should be inclusive and transparent. The way the European Parliament might involve itself in any such dialogue needed careful attention.
Referring to the point that non-religious voices had been heard at the meeting last May between the Presidents of the three main EU institutions – Council, Commission and Parliament – and a wide range of religious leaders, he noted that previous meetings had excluded even himself as president of the Parliament and said that there could be discussion about future invitation lists. A secular view of our existence was perfectly valid and merited respect even though he personally did not share it.
He then took questions. He acknowledged the concerns of Michael Cashman MEP (UK) and Proinsias de Rossa (Ireland) that religious groups tried undemocratically to impose their views on everyone, but said that churches and other organisations had the right to organise. No constitutional arrangements could be perfect but dialogue and democratic decision-making were a good start.
David Pollock, president of the EHF, acknowledging Mr Pottering’s good personal record of defending human rights, referred to the Polish government’s sustained attack on the human rights of gays and other minorities, suggesting that consideration should be given to suspending Poland’s membership of the EU before it undermined the EU’s own commitment to equality. Mr Pollock referred also to Mr Pottering’s defence of his invitation to the Pope to address the European Parliament (see Mr Pottering’s letter to the EHF posted on this forum on 29 May) and asked whom else he had invited in order to pursue his agenda of intercultural dialogue and whether in the interest of such dialogue he would invite the Pope to answer questions from MEPs.
In reply, Mr Pottering said that he opposed suspension of Poland’s membership, which would obstruct the work of convincing the Polish government about European values. As for the Pope, no distinguished visitors to the Parliament were asked to take questions. He said that both religious and non-religious viewpoints and organisations were important to society: without them we would find ourselves in a materialistic society lacking any spiritual dimension.
In reply to numerous other questions put to him within the brief 45 minutes of his visit, he stressed again the need for dialogue and understanding even where there could be no agreement. The European Humanist Federation, he said, should be officially included in this dialogue.
At the meeting, Keith Porteous Wood, representing both IHEU and its member organization National Secular Society, said:
“It is clear from research that the majority of EU citizens do not practise any religion and a steadily increasing number of people do not subscribe to religious bodies.
“There are 60 missions to the EU – but, crucially, only one, the European Humanist Federation, represents the non-religious viewpoint. And even this solitary body is accorded a lower status than its religious counterparts.
“Even many of those that are religiously affiliated do not follow the religious teachings on sexuality or issues concerning the beginning and end of life.
“The non-religious citizens are therefore becoming partially disenfranchised in these sensitive areas, yet will themselves be affected by the regressive changes in policy that religious groups increasingly seek to implement.
“At present, this privileged religious influence is overwhelmingly Christian, but the precedent it sets allows for other religions – particularly Islam, which is a growing force in Europe – to make conflicting and divisive demands.
“Therefore, as part of the obligation for transparency, the NSS calls for the European Humanist Federation to be invited on an equal status to all religious dialogue, including to the six-monthly meetings with the Catholic and Protestant churches.”
Herr Pöttering, in a brief response to NSS by name, said it was essential that dialogue continued also with Islam.