The National Catholic Review
John Coughlan

A draft constitution for the European Union was presented at a summit meeting in Greece on June 20. The debate over whether the constitution should include references to religion has raised fundamental questions about European identity. Despite the trans-Atlantic acrimony of recent months, the 105 members of the European Convention still aspire to the example set by its American counterpart. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French President chairing the convention, said recently that the European Union now stands at a crossroads, not wholly unlike that of Philadelphia in 1787.

Democracy in Europe

To some, this smacks of an ambition that is unachievable, undesirable or both. Europe’s cultural, linguistic and constitutional diversity indeed makes it absurd to think of a United States of Europe as cohesive as the United States of America. Yet while today’s European Union is no nascent superstate, let alone a single nation, it is far more than just another international organization. Up to three-quarters of new legislation in its member states starts life in the European Commission. Directives passing through the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers in recent weeks cover everything from the reunification of immigrant families to the security of pension funds, the treatment of human tissues and liability for environmental pollution.

Even so, Europe is still a distant concept for most Europeans. Voting in elections to the European Parliament is incredibly low, even by U.S. standards. Electors will always find it difficult to identify with E.U. politicians as long as their primary political community corresponds to their primary cultural and linguistic communitythat is, local or national. And while Brussels may be a legislative powerhouse, its fiscal impact is tiny. The E.U. budget is less than 1 percent of its gross domestic product. More taxes, though, are hardly a winning formula for greater public support.

The desire to balance national interests with the common European interest has also led to a complex institutional structure, unlike any familiar governmental system. Once a measure is decided in Brussels, member states have a couple of years to transfer it into their national legislation, so by the time most people feel its effect, the time for lobbying has long past. All this engenders the sense of a lack of accountability and legitimacy.

The convention, with members from the 15 current and 13 aspiring E.U. member states, as well as the Brussels-based European Commission and Parliament, is meant to overcome this democratic deficit. It aims to consolidate in a single constitution the series of treaties through which the European Union has evolved piecemeal since 1957 and to make the union’s institutions and procedures more accessible and transparent. Its premise is that the European Union must develop from an elite-driven project into a mature system of democratic governance, in which Europe’s citizens feel they have a stake.

European Values

To achieve its goal, the E.U. constitution must reflect the values of modern European society. So every conceivable interest group, from labor unions to nudist clubs, has made suggestions. The churches’ contribution has been led by the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community on the Catholic side, and by the Church and Society Commission of the Conference of European Churches, which has 126 member churches from the Anglican Communion and the Orthodox and Reformed traditions.

The European Union is often described as a community of values. In 2000, fellow E.U. states even imposed diplomatic sanctions against Austria to protest the inclusion of a far-right party in the coalition government. But European values are also invoked by xenophobic politicians like France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen to attack immigration, especially from Muslim countries.

The question of whether Turkey, a mainly Muslim country, can join the European Union keeps the issue burning. Political and church leaders alike emphasize that the European Union is not a Christian club, but that Turkey must fulfill certain basic criteria, including respect for religious freedom, before talks can begin. Even so, any reference to Christian values is likely to be criticized as exclusive or anti-Islamica sensitive charge since Sept. 11, 2001

In fact, many of the E.U.’s values, from respect for human dignity to the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, emanate from Christian thought, notably from Catholic social teaching. The cause for beatification of Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister who launched the process of European integration with a speech on May 9, 1950, (now observed as Europe Day) is reported to be advancing.

Religion and the State

Three years ago, however, the French government objected that a proposed reference to Europe’s religious heritage in the E.U.’s charter of fundamental rights would be unacceptable, as it would raise philosophical, political and constitutional problems for the secular French Republic. In the eyes of many, this defense of laïcité went beyond the separation of church and state and betrayed outright hostility toward religion in public life.

Such hostility is not new in European politics. Political anticlericalism can be traced back at least as far as the Enlightenment struggle against the power of the church. In France and Belgium, the Freemasons, under the innocuous title of humanists, continue to chip away at the church’s position. Anticlericalism became official ideology in Communist eastern Europe and, farther south, it was fed by the closeness of some ecclesiastical figures to Franco, Mussolini and Salazar. Today it still influences liberal and left-wing thought.

However, the tide is changing. In the view of Thijs Woltgens, a Dutch Labor politician, a European constitution that ignores its Christian heritage will become a product of neo-obscurantism, of an Enlightenment thinking that pretends to be more enlightening whilst it obscures the past (De Groene Amsterdammer, April 5, 2003). In France, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin declared in a recent interview that we need to invent a new laïcité for the 21st century, a laïcité which is not negative, but which expresses the intrinsic freedom of each person (Le Point, March 21, 2003).

In the final draft of its preamble, adopted on June 13, the E.U. constitution now explains that it draws inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, whose values are always present in its heritage, and which has embedded within the life of society its perception of the central role of the human person and his or her inviolable and inalienable rights, and of respect for law.

The first draft, published on May 28, had specified that Europe’s inheritance was nourished first by the civilizations of Greece and Rome, characterised by spiritual impulse always present in its heritage and later by the philosophical currents of the Enlightenment. The conspicuous omission of Christianity from this list provoked astonishment and criticism not only from the Vatican, but also from numerous politicians and intellectuals, some of them convinced atheists, who saw it as a misrepresentation of history. Mr. Giscard d’Estaing concluded that it would be simpler to delete Greece, Rome and the Enlightenment than to introduce a reference to one religious tradition. This may disappoint some in the church, but the fact that Europe’s religious inheritance is explicitly invoked as a source of inspiration is a major advance for the European Union when compared with the debate in 2000 on the charter. Nevertheless, some E.U. leaders, like Spain’s José María Aznar and Poland’s Leszek Miller, have vowed to keep up the campaign for an explicit mention of Christianity.

United Under God?

An inclusive reference to the Transcendent was another idea taken up by the Christian Democrat European People’s Party, the largest group in the convention. God already appears in the constitutions of several E.U. member states, and not just those written when religiosity was more prevalent in Europe. The German Basic Law, drafted after the fall of the Nazi regime, opens with the words, Conscious of its responsibility before God and Mankind.... Poland’s Constitution, adopted in 1997, appeals to both those who believe in God as the source of truth, justice, good and beauty, as well as those not sharing such faith but respecting those universal values as arising from other sources.

By recognizing the limits of human power and allowing citizens to invoke God, its supporters say that such a reference would guarantee respect for human rights even when secular powers try to abuse them. This is why the reference to God has particular resonance in countries that have recently emerged from secular totalitarianism.

The proposal’s more imaginative critics describe it as an attempt to subvert the principle of the impartiality of the European juridical system and to replace its democratic legitimacy with a theocratic legitimacy. Others claim that it would be divisive, though this assumes that God is sectarian. John Bruton, a senior member of the convention and former Irish prime minister, believes the critics have another agenda: I fear that these are people who find it difficult, at an intellectual and emotional level, publicly to recognize the existence of belief in God among their fellow citizens. They want it kept exclusively in the private sphere.... It is as if the absolutism that was once a characteristic of Christians has now been adopted by the secularists (The Tablet, Feb. 22, 2003).

More than two-thirds of Europeans believe in God, even though traditional forms of religious practice are undoubtedly on the decline (European Values Study, 2001). If the E.U. constitution were to recognize this faith, say the churches, it might help the union’s disaffected citizens to identify more closely with the values it claims to espouse.

The European Union and the ChurchesSeparate but in Dialogue

While the preamble is symbolically important, it is the body of the constitution that will form the basis for future decisions on E.U. legislation and policy. This part of the text includes an article on the status of churches and religious organizations, a significant innovation, given that until now the interaction between them and the E.U. institutionsmodeled on the French civil servicehas taken place only on a de facto, informal basis. The final draft of Article 51 states:

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 of philosophical and non-confessional organizations.

3. Recognizing their identity and their specific contribution, the Union shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with these churches and organizations.

The first two paragraphs are taken from a political declaration attached to the E.U.’s 1997 Amsterdam Treaty, pledging respect for the status of churches in its member statesbe it the strict separation of church and state in France, the close cooperation in Germany or the established Church of England. Integrating the declaration into the constitution would make it legally enforceable.

The third paragraph is a recognition that E.U. laws and policies nevertheless have an impact on churches and the services they provide to societyfrom a ban on advertising during the broadcast of religious services to the right of faith-based institutions to require employees to share their ethos. Churches, of course, also make a major contribution in areas like bioethics, development aid and social policy. A regular dialogue would create a framework for the myriad informal contacts that already take place and reinforce the role of the churches as vectors of identification and communication between E.U. institutions and the people they are intended to serve.

Of course, there is still opposition. For some, the relationship between church and state is an essential characteristic of national identity, and the European Union should have no say over it whatsoever. Finding the right balance between respect for national sovereignty and what may justifiably be addressed at the European levelin line with the principle of subsidiarityis a permanent challenge for E.U. policymaking. Other criticisms stem from the conviction that religious freedom is a private, individual right and has no institutional dimension, so religious institutions should have no role in public affairs.

Toward a European Model of Religion in Public Life?

In spite of these complaints, the convention seems to have reached a consensus that balances respect for the national church-state relationship with a place for religious communities in the E.U. framework. Most important, the proposed dialogue is based on a concept of religious institutions as distinct from secular authority but at the service of society as a wholeperhaps a European model for religion in public life.

The significance of references to religion in the new E.U. constitution is not only that they reflect the past or even the status quo, but that they set the foundation for the interaction between religion and politics in the future European Union. The importance of this novel construct is growing as new member states join and as globalization throws up new challenges to the outmoded structures of the traditional nation state. Most of Europe’s churches and religious communities have taken part in the debate, not least Pope John Paul II. As he declared in a speech to the Vatican diplomatic corps on Jan. 13, 2003, A Europe which disavowed its past, which denied the fact of religion, and which had no spiritual dimension would be extremely impoverished in the face of the ambitious project which calls upon all its energies: constructing a Europe for all!

The convention has now handed over its draft constitution to E.U. governments. The latter will meet, beginning in October, to work out the more controversial outstanding issues, such as the balance of power between bigger and smaller states, and aim to sign the Second Treaty of Rome by early next year. God may not be mentioned explicitly, but the debate about religion in the future E.U. constitution suggests that God is very much alive in the corridors of Brussels and that religious faith remains an essential feature of European identity.

John Coughlan is a journalist and advisor for the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community in Brussels, Belgium.

Comments

A Peter Kurtz | 8/9/2003 - 4:40pm
I was very impressed by the depth of thought in the article "God and Ceasar in the New Europe" by John Coughlan in the August 4th issue. In particular his comments on how the possible advent of Turkey, a Muslim nation, into the EU is at odds with the concept unstated by many but nevertheless operative that the EU really should be a "Christian Club" are very thought provoking.

For me that part of the discussion raises the issue of how religious traditions from diverse cultures may in fact all move toward one and the same God even though the different cultures call him by different names. Further, some traditions insist only their own special picture of God can lead to salvation while others are more inclusive in theological outlook.

I hope you can find authors willing to write articles on these topics which the article on the EU and its struggle with writing "religion" inot its constitution raised in my mind. These issues are central to any progress in real ecumenism either in thought or practice in the world.

A Peter Kurtz | 8/9/2003 - 4:40pm
I was very impressed by the depth of thought in the article "God and Ceasar in the New Europe" by John Coughlan in the August 4th issue. In particular his comments on how the possible advent of Turkey, a Muslim nation, into the EU is at odds with the concept unstated by many but nevertheless operative that the EU really should be a "Christian Club" are very thought provoking.

For me that part of the discussion raises the issue of how religious traditions from diverse cultures may in fact all move toward one and the same God even though the different cultures call him by different names. Further, some traditions insist only their own special picture of God can lead to salvation while others are more inclusive in theological outlook.

I hope you can find authors willing to write articles on these topics which the article on the EU and its struggle with writing "religion" inot its constitution raised in my mind. These issues are central to any progress in real ecumenism either in thought or practice in the world.