President Barosso is passing through London today on his way to give a lecture in Cambridge. He is expected to make a slight detour to meet privately with the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace for half an hour or so. It is one of those strange and random occurrences that I will be in Brussels at the time meeting with Jorge Cesar das Nevas, Barosso’s advisor on religious affairs.
Public debates about whether the now defunct EU Constitutional Treaty should include in its preamble any mention of God and Europe’s Christian heritage has fed the popular perception that the EU is a secular construction modelled on the French practice of laicitie. Today’s set of meetings suggests that the reality is somewhat different and more complicated.
From its inception many of those involved in the construction of the new Europe have been motivated by religious considerations and by matters of faith. This is hardly surprising when the European project has at its heart the quest for peace and reconciliation.
Since the Jesuits first opened their office in Brussels in 1964 the range and scope of religious representation has grown. Religious representation comes in various shapes and sizes. It includes diplomatic representations, official representations of Churches, inter church-organisations and networks, religious orders as well as single issue organisations.
From informal and ad hoc encounters the relationship between the EU and religious bodies has become increasingly institutionalised and structured. The Lisbon Treaty of 2010 provides in Article 17 for a regular, open and transparent dialogue between the EU institutions and churches as well as other communities of faith and conviction.
It would be wrong however to assume that Article 17 gives churches and religious leaders some privileged access or hot line through to decision makers. It doesn’t and churches should be careful in thinking otherwise.
I am sometimes taken back by the considerable energy and time that some churches have invested and continue to invest in trying to give legal meaning to the terms ‘regular’, ‘open’ and ‘transparent’. Such efforts are interesting intellectual experiments, but they distract from the more important task of maintaining a functional and expert dialogue with the EU around issues of mutual concern such as sustainable development.
The working culture of the EU is such that it generally welcomes contributions from any organisation that has expertise in any given policy area. If churches have to invoke Article 17 to be heard then it would suggest that either the working ethos of the EU has changed or that churches have nothing expert to say.
I would feel a lot more confident about the future if churches spent less time debating what Article 17 means, and more time ensuring that their existing interactions with the EU are expertly informed. That is why ad hoc working meetings such as those taking place today are so important. It also helps to explain why it is so crucial for churches to get the restructuring of the Conference of European Churches right. Our engagement with Europe is more effective when it is done in partnership with others.