What do MEPs do with their beliefs?

On 27th January 2015, Soteria International attended an event at the European Parliament with the subject of ‘What do MEPs do with their beliefs?’ It was an event hosted by the Intergroup on Freedom of Religion and Belief and Religious Tolerance. This included a presentation of a survey amongst MEPs by Professor Foret, coordinator of religion at the European Parliament Project.

Dennis de Jong MEP, the host of the event, emphasised the importance of this study saying that it was the first time that religion was looked at in the life of an MEP. He said for many MEPs religion remains something that they keep at home and there is also a consensus to leave things as they are and to regulate spirituality at home i.e. for some they choose to see that the EU is not the place for religious affairs.  He observed that possibly  new member states are more conservative and less secularised that old member states. And he mentioned that we should be aware to differentiate between religious influences and cultural differences e.g. in the case of Turkey. He also underlined that the survey is not entirely reliable when only 20% of the MEPs completed the survey.

François Foret is Professor of Political Science and Jean Monnet Chair at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Belgium. He is also director for political research at the Institute for European Studies at ULB and a researcher at the Centre d’Etude de la Vie Politique (CEVIPOL). Professor Foret introduced himself as an academic with a nondenominational approach upon spirituality and for the purposes of this event and presentation of his survey he described himself as a political scientist.

The purpose of this international research programme is to investigate the beliefs of the members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and what they do with these beliefs, whether the place of religion in Brussels was a fair reflection of its place in the daily life of Europeans and why and with what effects this says about the nature and impact of the EU as a political order.

Research questions include: Are European elites more secularized than everyday EU citizens? What effects does religion have on the political socialisation of MEPs (cross-party structures, religious lobbies) and, conversely, what is the EP’s influence on religion? How do religion, coalition- and decision-making interact at the European level?

In this study Professor Foret states the way Europe deals with religious world visions that challenge the rational and interest-based fundamentals of European integration is an indicator of whether the EU is becoming an encompassing political identity and communicative sphere able to contain and regulate conflicts. He says that religion is above all an indicator of cultural Europeanization. Europeanization is understood here both as a reorientation of feelings of belonging and allegiance to the EU and as a potential homogenization, or at least an increasing hybridization, of national cultures.

Surveys were distributed to all the MEPs (751) in parliament.

They were given in the MEPs own language in a number of forms: telephone calls, emailing and by post. However, only 167 answered and completed the questionnaire.

Professor Foret’s conclusion is that the EU does indeed constitute a whole policy in the making, reaching all dimensions of social and individual lives, including religion.

Consequently, the ongoing normalization of the European political order poses in renewed terms the ancient question of the nature of the articulation between religion and politics, a question constitutive of every political system in human history. Politics in Brussels has a certain level of autonomy and innovation, as it involves an unprecedented number and diversity of actors, cultural models, and power centres. In these conditions, it has to function by its own rules and to produce endogenous modus operandi. However, European integration is not a charismatic community-building process that would radically alter established patterns of loyalty and belonging and reconfigure from scratch the historical intertwining of spiritual and temporal affairs.

Margrete Auken MEP spoke next and she started by saying that she is known in Denmark as  a Pastor in Politics because of her background, aiming to show that its possible to be an MEP and religious. She said that what is remarkable, except from France, all countries in Europe have secularisation even in Christianity. She expressed that it is not acceptable that they use religious arguments when they do not have normal arguments for different issues. She then gave an example of an area in which many people are not able to give normal arguments for and seem to be confused,  showing somehow a misunderstanding  of values i.e. the confusion that abortion is equal to anticonception.

The next person to speak was Virginie Roziere MEP from the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. She is from the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in politics. She stated that secularism is not a matter of believing or convincing, it is something that protects individuals, that whatever people’s belief or non-belief, they are free to experience it and to think or believe and that no belief is superior to another. She said that secularism is a way to protect freedom of religion and non-belief and that it protects individuals. She said that she is not sure if in the EU secularism is really applied. In France, there is not total freedom of speech she said that in France one can criticise ideas but are not allowed to insult people or communities and many times there were court cases regarding Charlie Hebdoe criticising the catholic church. She also said that there is the tendency to talk about religion when dealing with other issues e.g. individual rights.

Following were the perspectives given by Branislav Sklipek MEP. He raised the question of how communism relates to religion. Coming from a communist state where he was brought up atheist, he discovered religion through a personal spiritual experience. He described that religion has a constant element of identity and cannot be cut off from public activity and even that atheism is a kind of religion. He described the importance of distinguishing between church and state and that the church cannot be neutral. He mentioned that in politics people were happy to promote Christian values but not stand for these.

In conclusion, this was a landmark study as it is the first study and meeting where religious views were looked at in the EU. This is a step forward in acknowledging the importance of spiritual beliefs in daily life within the EU.