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Historical highlights

The Representation of religious communities and philosophical groups in the European Union

There is precedence of organisations created by the European Churches within the field of the Council of Europe on those belonging to the field of the European Community. The former are the (...)

There is precedence of organisations created by the European Churches within the field of the Council of Europe on those belonging to the field of the European Community. The former are the Conference of European Churches (CEC), created in 1959, bringing together Protestants, Anglicans and Orthodox, and of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE), founded in 1971, gathering the European bishops’ conferences.

The first religious structures present in Brussels owe much more to the efforts of committed, Christian European officials for Protestants, and those of Religious Orders for Catholics, than to the direct efforts of the Churches. Behind the European Ecumenical Commission for Church and Society (EECCS), created in 1973 and subsequently integrated as the Church and Society Commission (CSC) of the CEC, is the AOES (Ecumenical Association for Church and Society), a group of committed European officials. The first Catholic structure present in Brussels came at the initiative of a religious order. It is the Jesuit-run Catholic European Study and Information Centre (OCIPE, now JESC), established in 1956 in Strasbourg, then in 1963 in Brussels. The creation of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE) in 1980 is due to the efforts of some bishops and also to the requests of European officials.

The presidency of Jacques Delors (1985-1995) constituted a reorientation in the relations with religions and humanists, towards institutionalisation and multi-partnership. It was from 1990-94, that the relations between the European Commission and religions were worked out. In December 1994, Jacques Delors organised an important meeting with Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jew and Muslim representatives. They were joined by officials from the European Humanist Federation (EHF). At the end of 1994, beginning of 1995, the "A Soul for Europe" initiative was organised. It was designed to finance ecumenical, even interfaith and multinational meetings to discuss the construction of Europe.

Two types of periodic meetings were set up by Thomas Jansen, who was in charge of relations with religious groups and humanists at the CDP from 1996 to 1999: biannual dialogue seminars with the European Ecumenical Commission for Church and Society (EECCS) and the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE) where issues of interest to the Churches are discussed with European officials, as well as biannual briefing meetings after each European summit. The latter have welcomed a growing number of partners: 11 in 1996, 32 in 2000 and about fifty in 2003.
The EECCS/CEC and the COMECE also structured relations with the Council of Ministers. Since 1997, these organizations have been meeting with the future Presidency of the Union to discuss its agenda. The COMECE also undertook to structure its relations with the European People’s Party, the largest party of the European Parliament, with Christian Democrat leanings.

Prodi’s presidency represents a period of crisis and renewal for the relations between the European commission and religions. The initiative called "a soul for Europe", in crisis since the end of the Santer commission finally dissolved itself at the beginning of 2004 and dialog seminars were suspended for a while. That is the reason why the formal and periodical frameworks of EU/religions dialogue were in crisis and forums of experts on religious issues started without any genuine religious representatives. The reflection group on the spiritual and cultural dimensions of Europe (Michalski group) discussed the importance of religion in European identity during the convention on the constitutional treaty also known as the high-level advisory group (Groupe des sages) on dialogue between peoples and cultures. They gathered to think about the new tools of intercultural and inter-religious dialogue in the context of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership.

With a new article (art. 17 of the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union ) concerning the “open, transparent and regular” relations between the EU institutions and the Churches, religion and the secular humanism, the relations between the Commission and religions got stronger at the end of the Prodi Commission and during the Barroso Commission: the Orthodox were allowed to take part in dialogue seminars, several top meetings with President Barroso and four briefings every year for a growing number of religious organizations were planned. Among these organizations, in the name of the principle of openness, minority and often controversial organizations, such as the Church of Scientology, Sokka Gakkaï, Christian Science or Mormons are also invited.

For an overview of the meetings and discussions conducted by the European Commission with religious and non-confessional organisations, see the DG Justice website

It is necessary, however, to realize that the main part of relations between religious and humanistic groups and the institutions of the European Union go through the unofficial channel of lobbying, according to what interests are being defended, what personal contacts have been made and to what opportunities exist. Religious and philosophical groups are not equal in this effort to approach the European institutions insofar as their human, financial and organisational resources, not to mention relational capital, are quite different.

D 4 October 2012    ABérengère Massignon

Evolving relations between religions and the European institutions

The full ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon, after the second Irish referendum and the lifting of the Czech President’s veto opened the door for further institutionalisation of relations between (...)

The full ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon, after the second Irish referendum and the lifting of the Czech President’s veto opened the door for further institutionalisation of relations between religious groups and European institutions, as envisaged in Article I-52 of the Constitutional Treaty, now Art. 17 of the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union.
Under Barroso’s Presidency, dialogue seminars with COMECE and CEC have been restored, while they had been suspended for a time under Santer’s Presidency. Finally, summit meetings with the First Vice-president of the Commission are tabled each year. What is new is that the meeting with the big religious leaders has been separated from the one with representatives of secular humanism, which calls into question the Belgian-Dutch formula adopted after Delors, i.e. recognition of the humanist movement as a quasi-religion. This change can be explained by the strong conflicts that have opposed churches and the EHF on the issue of Article I-52, with humanists challenging the appropriateness of a specific advisory channel for religions, even if they themselves benefited from it. Moreover, the Commission has diversified the representation of non-religious philosophical movements, by incorporating movements from non-dogmatic Freemasons, who are advocates of a French kind of secularity in which secular movements do not seek to construct a counter-church.
To complete this picture of relations between the Commission and religions, it should be noted that relations between the EU and religions follow the former trend for pluralisation. Indeed, once a religious movement is recognised in one member country and adheres to european values, it is entitled to be a dialogue partner.

For further information:
- EU Council. Guidelines on the implementation of Article 17 TFEU by the European Commission (June 2013)
- European Parliament. The EU institutions and dialogue with non-confessional organisations (Nov. 2015)
- European Parliament. Dialogue of the EU institutions with religious and non-confessional organisations (Sept. 2016)

Updated by Françoise Curtit

D 9 September 2016    ABérengère Massignon

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