A Welcome Surprise: The First EU Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief Outside the EU

On Friday 6 May, whilst Brussels was enjoying a bank holiday, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker announced the appointment of ex-Commissioner Jan Figel as the first EU Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) outside the EU.

Why has this appointment been made?

This appointment followed a little noticed paragraph in the European Parliament (EP) resolution on the systematic mass murder of religious minorities by the so-called ‘ISIS/Daesh’, which had called in paragraph 10 for such a posting. Calls made in EP resolutions are notoriously under-implemented; even the European External Action Service (EEAS) staff seemed to be taken by surprise by the announcement, which as it concerns FoRB outside the EU, falls under their remit.

The appointment, thus, has left many in Brussels wondering what it will actually mean in practice.  During his speech to the Vatican, President Juncker said that “Freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental right which is part of the foundation of the European Union.” This is consistent with a growing importance being given to FoRB over the past couple of years; the EU Guidelines on this topic emerged in June 2013. In 2015, the European Parliament established an EP Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance and the commission appointed coordinators on anti-Semitism and anti-Islamophobia within the EU.

What is clear is that Jan Figel will act as a special advisor to Neven Mimicia, the European Commissioner for International Development. Whereas other advisors to commissioners have clearly defined mandates on the EC website, the fact that Jan Figel only has a title indicates that he will have some flexibility to shape his work.

Why is it important?

The will to mainstream freedom of religion or belief into the EU’s wider external agenda is a very welcome sign. Given the increasing number of FoRB violations taking place both inside and outside of Europe, there needs to be a push for an increased awareness of the need for FoRB and the way that it benefits communities. Pew’s most recent study on religious hostility worldwide found that 5.5 billion people worldwide live in countries with high or very high overall restrictions on religion. Several of these countries are recipients of EU development aid.

“The will to mainstream freedom of religion or belief into the EU’s wider external agenda is a very welcome sign.”

That said, given that the majority of those people are citizens of China and India, the world’s largest emerging economies, it may have been useful for Jan Figel to have also been made a special advisor to Cecilia Malmström, the European Commissioner for Trade. According to research by Dr Brian Grim, FoRB is good for business and countries with fewer restrictions on religion experience more investment and growth – so perhaps it’s an argument that can still be made.

How much influence will the EU Special Envoy on FoRB outside the EU actually have?

It remains to be seen what the relationship will be between the Special Envoy and Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU’s Special Representative for Human Rights and the EEAS. Given that the EEAS is responsible for arranging the EU’s human rights dialogues (bi-lateral talks that take place between the EU and third countries) it would be in the interests of coherence for Mr Figel to establish close contact with this institution.

If Jan Figel uses the EU’s FoRB guidelines as a basis for his work, then he could play an instrumental role in pushing for their wider dissemination and implementation at the dialogues. He could also work to mainstream religious concerns more broadly in the EU’s peacekeeping initiatives. Mr Figel should strive to form a working group incorporating all of those concerned with different aspects of FoRB so as to ensure the coherence and consistency of EU action on the matter.

“As the world becomes more polarised and people become more wary of one another, the promotion of FoRB provides for pluralism and peaceful co-existence.”

With atheist bloggers being killed in Bangladesh, Yazidis and other religious minorities being massacred by Daesh (Islamic State), and religious leaders throughout the world being intimidated and arrested, FoRB is more important than ever. As the world becomes more polarised and people become more wary of one another, the promotion of FoRB provides for pluralism and peaceful co-existence. Mr Figel has the opportunity to bring together all of the elements of FoRB protection and promotion in the EU and move them forward to create a safer world for people of all faiths and none. Let’s hope he uses it.

By Dr Susan Kerr and Claire Gilder, CSW’s Europe Office

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