Advancing freedom of religion or belief in the new European parliament: Three suggestions for new MEPs

Last week, citizens of EU member states cast their votes in the European parliamentary elections, the outcome of which will define European politics for the next five years.

The outcomes included a rise in new pan-European parties and those at the fringes of the political spectrum. Although the two largest political families, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), and centre-left Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), remain the largest groupings in the parliament overall, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will need to find ways to collaborate and coalitions will be more important than ever.

As these elections usher in many new MEPs eager to get to grips with all that there is to learn about the EU political landscape, CSW has three key recommendations to make to those seeking to uphold and promote the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in their new role.

1. Build on the work of The Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief & Religious Tolerance (FoRB & RT)

The Intergroup on FoRB & RT is a crucial platform to raise FoRB issues at the European level. With any newly elected parliament, it is uncertain whether this or any Intergroup will continue to exist. Its longevity depends on the enthusiasm and productivity of elected MEPs and their assistants between July and November of this year, by the end of which Parliament will vote whether to formally establish proposed groups for the next five years.

Despite being active in the past, the Intergroup on FoRB & RT has been seen to stagnate recently in its activity, mainly due to a lack of a formal group coordinator to institutionalise, energise and lead the group.

Incoming MEPs should capitalise on the opportunity provided by the Intergroup to  build cross-party interest in upholding FoRB, and secure its future by working to secure a group coordinator who will be able to inject a much needed impetus to an Intergroup which has great potential.

To make the Intergroup as dynamic and interactive as possible, MEPs could draw on the lessons from the wider field of human rights. The ‘Defending Freedoms Project’ set up by the US Commission of International Religious Freedom in partnership with the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International USA encourages US Congressmen and women to ‘adopt’ prisoners of conscience around the world, standing in solidarity with them while committing to advocate publicly towards governments in question for their release. Similarly, the European parliamentary programme ‘De la Mano’ set up by MEP Josep Maria Terricabras, offers a European framework for MEPs passionate about upholding human rights whereby they are ‘twinned’ with Mexican journalists whose rights are at risk.

Incoming MEPs could seek to replicate such successful practices by pioneering a similar programme between those who suffer from FoRB violations and MEPs who could advocate on their behalf.

2. Strengthen the mandate of the EU Special Envoy on FoRB outside of the EU.

The mandate for the EU Special Envoy on FoRB was created in 2016 by the then President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.

There are three main shortcomings that hamper this post from realising its full potential:

  • The term lasts only one year.
  •  The mandate is open to interpretation and malleable enough that its efficacy is really dependent on the person presiding over the office.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, the Special Envoy on FoRB currently reports to the Head of DG Development and Cooperation, unlike his counterpart, the Special Representative on Human Rights, who reports to the European External Action Service. This unfortunately gives the impression that the EU  considers FoRB violations as issues only present in developing countries and hampers the ability of the Special Envoy to influence EU policies most effectively.

The Grzyb Report of December 2018 made a number of important recommendations to rectify such weaknesses in the Special Envoy’s mandate, with proposals such as extending the duration of the mandate, increasing the funding for the position, and increasing cooperation with European institutions such as the Council Working Group on Human Rights (COHOM).

CSW encourages new MEPs to engage critically with the recommendations of the Grzyb Report and to advocate for a stronger mandate for Special Envoy in order to make the EU even more effective in addressing FoRB issues worldwide.

3. Seek a broad consensus on FoRB that does not leave vulnerable groups behind

Although the Grzyb report had a number of recommendations which could be seen as positive steps towards strengthening the promotion of FoRB in the EU, its mixed reception revealed that many MEPs have differing views on what FoRB is and even which groups are vulnerable to violations of the right, such as atheists.

Such disagreement among MEPs over the meaning and application of FoRB indicates a need for broader consensus in this new European parliament, underpinning a strong FoRB programme that addresses the needs of vulnerable groups and ensures that the EU fulfils its commitments to uphold and promote the right to freedom of religion or belief at home and abroad.

These recommendations are not an exhaustive list, but should provide a good starting point for MEPs to ensure that the EU continues to be a valuable institution in the promotion and protection of FoRB worldwide.

By CSW’s European Liaison Officer, Alessandro Pecorari.