Humanist Association of Ireland — Sunday meeting 4th May
Proinsias De Rossa, who was an MEP for 15 years, spoke to his theme of ‘The European Commission is not God — Why the Next European Commission President needs to be a Humanist’.
The meeting was chaired by Philip Byers, Board member with responsibility for Communication, Finance and Education.
In the course of his address Proinsias pointed out that the EU has been a significant driver of advances in human rights generally, including the rights of those with a secular philosophy. For us as humanists, how the philosophical views of the members of the European Parliament and the members of the Commission, and of its President in particular, affect decision-making are of critical importance. He emphasised the need for all European citizens to engage with the development of the EU mission and objectives and quoted the report of Italian MEP Roberto Gualtieri, which discussed the EU’s constitutional problems, on the need for the “… legitimacy of a political Union should not merely be based on input and output, on process and results, but also on a moral narrative, a compelling vision for the future“
From its inception the EU has acknowledged the Christian heritage of Europe. However during the negotiations in the ‘European Convention on the future of Europe’ (2003-2004), from which the Lisbon Treaty was derived, and in spite of strong opposition, a reference to our ‘humanist heritage’ was also included in the Preamble. Other provisions refer to diversity, the right to no religion, tolerance etc.
In addition Article 17 (TFEU) along with Declaration 11 confirms that the Union equally respects the status under national law of philosophical and non-confessional organisations as well as religious associations and churches, while placing an obligation on the Commission to engage in dialogue with these bodies. The implementation of this article has not so far been very satisfactory largely because of the reluctance of those opposed to dialogue with secular organisations.
However, some complaints have been effective at the EU level. For example the Association Européenne de la Pensée Libre (Europe) complained in 2012 to the European Ombudsman that the representation on a committee on science and ethics (EGE) established by the Commission was not independent or pluralist; nine of the 15 members were theologians or clerics and mostly Roman Catholic. While the European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly declared in her judgement in February this year, that there was no ‘maladministration’ she nevertheless called on the European Commission to review how it selects members of this ethics committee and that: “At the time of the renewal of the composition of the EGE, the Commission could consider clarifying in the call for expression of interest that religious or personal beliefs are not taken into account for the selection and that ‘secular’ candidates are invited to apply”. This illustrates both the need for vigilance by Humanists, and that action can effect change.
Proinsias de Rossa also pointed out that a disturbing development throughout Europe at the moment is the rise of nationalism and xenophobia, and especially the re-emergence of the use of religion as a marker of national identity. This ideology, driven by fear, is destructive of society and the opposite of how we need to respond to the loss of democratic control and accountability of supra-national economic forces. He reminded us that the late President Mitterrand addressing the European Parliament (17/1/1995) foresaw the danger when he warned that we had to overcome our past, otherwise we would face the re-emergence of nationalism, and declared that “nationalism is war”.
A further example of the growth of reactionary elements is their capacity in the European Parliament to block the advancement of human rights when they recently helped defeat the Edite Estrela Report (December 2013). Her report — on behalf of the Women’s’ Rights Committee of the EP — sought among other things to draw attention to the restriction on sexual health and reproductive rights in the EU, including in Ireland.
Citizens of Europe therefore need to examine closely who they choose to represent them both in the European Parliament and in the European Commission over the next few weeks. Secularists need to act now, at the ballot box, if we are to counteract the growth of the religious conservative influence in the EP. The choices we make now are critical in the struggle to roll back the reactionary trend currently being experienced.
We can start by asking candidates, if they are outgoing MEPs, how they voted on the Estrela Report and why? They could also be asked for a commitment to ensuring that Humanist voices are heard at all levels of the EU institutions, and indeed that they will insist on the separation of religion and politics at the EU level. We could also ask candidates if elected to report back to us on their activities in the area of human rights.
Proinsias de Rossa concluded his presentation by pointing out that the President of the European Commission has to be approved by the European Parliament, and that the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have influence on who the European Council (Heads of State) propose to the EP for that position. In addition for the first time ever, due to the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty, the European Council has to have regard to the votes cast by EU citizens in the EP elections in making their proposal. They should therefore be lobbied to ensure they comply with this more democratic process, while at the same time drawing their attention to the need to have a nominee both for the Presidency and for the Irish nominee to the Commission, who is actively committed to European values and objectives, in their totality. The HAI could perhaps produce a statement to circulate to candidates on these matters.
The HAI could also register with the Department of An Taoiseach as an ‘interlocutor’ for dialogue under Article 17 (TFEU). This would give us access to government and to the European Commission for inclusion in this dialogue process. In the medium to long-term, there is a need for the HAI to monitor the activities of Members of the European Parliament and their voting records, and the activities and initiatives of the Commission on issues relevant to the HAI.
The discussion was wide-ranging and expressed the view of many members present that the EU seems remote and complex and that there is a need for much more information; news organisations do not allocate sufficient resources to this task, and tend to focus on ‘conflict’ rather than on clarifying the issues being debated in the EP.
Philip Byers thanked Proinsias De Rossa for guiding us through the complexities of the EU and the generation of policy and its implementation, and presented him with a first-day cover of the new Darwin stamp (the issuing of which the Association had pressed for).