On 24 June the EU Council of Ministers adopted new Guidelines on promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief in EU external action and human rights policy. The guidelines are based on the principles of equality, non-discrimination and universality and are intended to provide practical guidance to officials of the EU and Member States in their relations with third countries and with international and civil society organisations. The guidelines go further than the previous Council conclusions on freedom of religion or belief which were adopted under the Swedish Presidency in 2009 and take into account most of the text adopted by the European Parliament on 13 June; but they are not as detailed as the EP text in relation to monitoring and assessment requirements.
The guidelines reaffirm that it is up to each individual State to ensure that its legal system guarantees freedom of religion or belief and to put in place “effective measures” to prevent or sanction any violations. The EU and its Member States should focus on:
- fighting against acts of violence on the ground of religion or belief;
- promoting freedom of expression;
- promoting respect for diversity and tolerance;
- fighting against direct and indirect discrimination; notably by implementing non-discriminatory legislation;
- supporting freedom to change or leave one’s religion or belief;
- supporting the right to manifest religion or belief;
- supporting and protecting human rights defenders including support for individual cases; and
- supporting and engaging with civil society, including religious associations, non-confessional and philosophical organisations.
The guidelines clarify the EU’s own position of neutrality towards religion or belief, not aligning itself with any specific view but upholding the individual’s right of conscience to choose, changeor abandon a conviction. Moreover, the priorities are of equal importance.
The guidelines recommend action to be taken at different levels. At the local level, EU missions (i.e. EU delegations and Member States Embassies and Consulates) will be responsible for monitoring, assessing and reporting on these priorities. When necessary, the EU and its Member States should promote freedom of religion or belief during their official visits to third countries. At the multilateral level, the EU will continue to participate actively in the UN agenda. In practice, the guidelines call for using external and thematic financial instruments by providing funding to human rights defender projects, especially capacity building and mediation training projects.
The Council Working Group on Human Rights (COHOM) will be responsible for developing further guidance for EU missions and provide general support. After three years, COHOM will also conduct an evaluation of the implementation of the guidelines, based on reports from the EU Heads of Missions and consultations with civil society, including Churches and religious associations.
The Church and Society Commission of the Council of European Churches (CEC), representing the Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican and Old Catholic Churches, welcomed the guidelines but said that it would monitor their implementation and evaluation to ensure that they were being used effectively to combat violations. The guidelines were also broadly welcomed by the Commission of [Roman Catholic] Bishops’ Conferences of the EU (COMECE) but with somewhat greater reservations. COMECE suggested that any future review of the guidelines might usefully follow the European Parliament’s recommendations on:
- the reinforcement of the collective dimension of religious freedom, broadening the individualistic interpretation of the right so as fully to include its social and institutional dimension;
- the recognition of the full right of parents to educate their children according to their religious beliefs as provided for by international law; and
- a more balanced approach to the principle of non-discrimination with sensitivity to the impact of that principle on religious freedom.
The Erasmus Blog on the website of The Economist greeted the guidelines with very muted enthusiasm indeed, on two grounds:
- the fact that the EU is making detailed prescriptions for outsiders without addressing the issue of religious freedom within the Union itself: “Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty allows EU members the full range of options, from the strict secularity of France to the state churches of England, Denmark and Greece. If the Union allows for such internal diversity, perhaps it should be more hesitant to micromanage the affairs of others”; and
the almost complete lack of publicity for the document: “[i]f the EU is to have a religious-freedom policy worth the name, then political figures of real standing (the heads of government or foreign ministers of leading members, for a start) will have to offer some high-profile backing, and persuade people they have thought through some hard issues”.
The first point, in particular, has a good deal of weight behind it. A few EU members still pursue policies which appear to be rather at odds with the some of the provisions of the ECHR: the rather restrictive requirements for registration of religious communities in countries such as Austria and the almost complete failure of the Romanian Government to resolve the issue of properties expropriated from faith-groups such as the “Greek-Catholics” in communion with Rome [Biserica Română Unită cu Roma, Greco-Catolică] are just two examples.
With thanks to my colleague Caroline Antoine