The biggest headlines in European papers in the early weeks of 2012 may have been generated by the financial crisis and the future of euro, but it was not only politicians and economists who occupied the media limelight.
The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke up about the plight of Christians in the Middle East, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would visit communist Cuba in March, and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church intervened on the domestic political stage, calling on his country’s government to engage in dialogue with protesters. Their actions and influence reinforce the words of Peter Berger, one of the leading sociologists of religion, who recently recanted his previous view that secularisation would be the main trend in the 21st century. “The world today is as furiously religious as it ever was,” he now says.
‘Furious’ is not the characteristic of religious engagement with the EU, but, counter to a widespread perception, religious and convictional issues have not been absent from the process of European integration.
Historically, it is accurate to say that the construction of the European Union was primarily an economic and political project and that, in forging an ‘ever closer union’, politicians refrained from addressing religious issues.
But the decades since the 1950 Schuman Plan, the cornerstone of the European project, have been characterised by long-standing contact between religious practitioners, politicians and EU civil servants. Analysis shows that 120 religious/convictional groups – representing the Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Masonic and Humanist communities – have engaged in dialogue with the European Commission.
Relations between European institutions and ‘churches, religions and communities of conviction’ fall into four rough periods and types: public-private (1950-82), experimental (1982-90), pro-active (1990-2007), and institutionalised relations (2007-today).
Public-private relations emerged as the product of the personal religious interests of politicians and officials involved in the process of European co-operation rather than from a systematised policy on religion. The Roman Catholic Church is commonly seen as the prime religious supporter of the process of post-war European integration, and the first six countries forming the European Coal and Steel Community did resemble a ‘Catholic club’. However, the first transnational religious movement in support of European integration dated to the inter-war years and was ecumenical in character.
This movement led to the establishment of the first transnational reflection group advising churches on the process of European integration, and it included Protestant and Anglican churchmen and politicians. This group was formed just months after the Schuman Declaration and continued until 1974, bringing together not only Western churchmen affiliated with national churches and the World Council of Churches, but also political leaders involved in the process of European integration and European reconstruction.
Three of the most notable were Jean Rey, the European Commission’s president in 1967-70; Gustav Heinemann, Germany’s president in 1969-74; and Max Kohnstamm, the general Secretary of the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community (1952-56) and later the vice-president of the Action Committee for the United States of Europe (1956–75).
The support of the Roman Catholic Church first became evident at the level of European institutions when it opened a Secrétariat catholique pour les problèmes européens, which monitored the Council of Europe from 1950 until 1952. It later re-opened as the first Catholic representation to European institutions, first in Strasbourg (1956) and then in Brussels (1963).
Experimental relations developed due to the decision of the European Commission to establish a liaison with churches and religions in 1982.
This liaison became formal in 1990 after the Commission’s president, Jacques Delors, launched a public debate on the “heart and soul” of Europe. This prompted an increasing number of religious/convictional bodies to set up offices in Brussels and to adopt pro-active relations with European institutions.
The most recent phase – institutionalised relations – began in 2007, the year that EU leaders signed the Treaty of Lisbon. The treaty acknowledged for the first time that matters related to religion and faith play a role in the EU when it recommended an “open, transparent and regular dialogue” between European institutions and “churches, religions and communities of conviction”. This institutionalisation has stimulated regular public meetings between high-profile religious leaders and EU officials.
Although religious/convictional issues remain under the jurisdiction of EU national member states, the increasing number of communities that have representations to the EU indicates that ‘faith’ matters not only at a personal level, but also in the corridors of power of European institutions, and more significantly, in the construction of the European political system.
The EU’s institutions are not immune to religious matters. Religion and ‘faith’ feed directly into the EU’s position as an international actor. And, in the academic arena, the role of religion in the EU’s construction promises to be one of the most dynamic areas of investigation in the coming years.
Lucian N. Leustean is a lecturer in politics and international relations at the Aston Centre for Europe, Aston University, Birmingham, UK. He was co-editor of “Religion, politics and law in the European Union” (Routledge, 2010) and edited “Representing religion in the European Union: does God matter?” (Routledge), which is due out in June.