Revealed: controversial plan to boost religious lobby in Brussels, as far right pledges to fight for ‘Christian Europe’

Leaked proposals from a senior Irish politician, backed by powerful Christian lobbyists, raise stakes in European elections, where the far right is pushing for big gains

Sian Norris
15 May 2019, 8.01pm
Far right rally in Prague, Czech Republic 2019
unreguser/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images.

A leaked report reveals a controversial plan to dramatically increase the influence of religious groups on the European Parliament, openDemocracy can reveal today.

Written by Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness, the parliament’s vice-president, it would give churches a say on potentially every new piece of legislation, resolution or report going through the European Parliament.

The report recommends more direct meetings between religious associations and the parliament’s rapporteurs – who handle legislative proposals drawn up by the European Commission, as well as other key documents, including draft strategies.

Religious groups are already treated differently to other civil society organisations in Brussels. But critics say the proposed changes would increase this imbalance. Some MEPs say this would violate the separation of religion and politics.

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McGuinness’s report was presented last month to the European Parliament’s bureau, which decides the body’s rules and draft budgets.

It was shelved after lawmakers protested, but is expected to be discussed again in June – after the parliament’s hotly contested elections, in which far-right parties hope to make big gains.

Already far-right politicians from Italy to Hungary are pledging to defend ‘Christian Europe’ and promote an ultra-conservative 'traditional values' agenda, aligning with Christian conservative groups that oppose divorce and contraception as well as sex education, abortion and gay rights.

There is concern from MEPs that an increased far-right presence in the European Parliament could aid future attempts to pass McGuinness’s controversial proposals.

One MEP told openDemocracy that the report was “pre-empting decisions in the next parliament” and that this, with the predicted surge of far right MEPs, is “worrying”.

openDemocracy can further reveal that Mairead McGuinness’s assistant in Brussels, a senior Irish civil servant who is understood to have worked on this report, is also connected to Agenda Europe, a secretive network which campaigns against sexual and reproductive rights.

The report’s recommendations would also apply to ‘non-confessional philosophical groups’ that parliament consults with, including humanist organisations. But these groups are fewer in number – and they are also highly critical of the proposals.

Julie Pernet, at the European Humanist Federation, told openDemocracy that the report was supposed to be “the result of a broad consensus” of organisations, “which is not true”. Rather, she said, it primarily reflects the positions of powerful Christian groups who want to “impose a reactionary agenda” and “make sure EU legislation obeys Catholic dogma”.

In a letter to the parliament’s president, a group of MEPs said the proposals were a “severe violation of the principle of separation between religion and politics” and would create “a highly undesirable and untransparent privileged lobby channel for religious organisations.”

Citing openDemocracy’s recent investigation into the millions of dollars the US Christian right has pumped into European politics over the last decade – boosting the influence of the far right across the continent – the MEPs warn that it would be “irresponsible to open up the legislative process to religious organisations”.

The MEPs also questioned the report’s claim to reflect “a clear consensus” among the consulted groups, saying it “appear[s] to endorse mostly the views of the churches present”.

‘Christian Europe’ and the far right

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is perhaps the most prominent far-right politician pledging to defend ‘Christian Europe’ and promote an ultra-conservative 'traditional values' agenda. He put such pledges in his party’s European elections manifesto. Another far-right leader, Matteo Salvini – Italy’s deputy prime minister and far-right Lega party leader – called a recent summit of ultra-conservative Christian activists an example of “the Europe that we like”.

Many of these politicians have targeted ‘gender ideology’: aligning themselves with Christian conservative groups that oppose divorce and contraception as well as sex education, same-sex marriage, trans rights, and women’s access to safe, legal abortion.

Viviana Waisman, director of Women’s Link Worldwide, a women’s rights organisation with offices in Spain and Colombia, has warned that these global Christian conservative movements seek to “take us back in time in terms of what women can and can’t do”.

Matteo Salvini on the campaign trail in Sicily
Francesco Militello Mirto/Zuma Press/PA Images.

COMECE – the Catholic Church’s lobby group in Brussels – has long pushed for strengthened dialogue between churches and the European Parliament. One focus has been reform of how Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union is implemented. This part of the treaty requires “open, transparent and regular dialogue between the EU institutions and churches, religious associations, and philosophical and non-confessional organisations”.

McGuinness’s Article 17 report proposes more “working-level meetings” with rapporteurs to share “expertise on specific dossiers”. It also recommends that European Parliament liaison offices support churches in influencing policy by reaching out to their MEPs. openDemocracy understands that COMECE specifically pushed for these changes.

Critics say these recommendations would give religious groups like COMECE, which consistently oppose sexual and reproductive rights, further privileged access to those in charge of legislative planning on those issues.

COMECE denies that it is close to the far right. In response to questions put by openDemocracy, it also stated it is “committed to limit its focus only on EU competences” and “no dialogue is carried out by COMECE with the EU institutions on matters falling outside EU competence, including access to abortion and same-sex marriage”.

However, Julie Pernet at the European Humanist Federation has called McGuinness’ report “one of various initiatives that have been taken by COMECE to re-Christianise Europe and undermine key rights”.

The lead signatory to the MEPs’ letter against the proposals is French politician Virginie Rozière. She told openDemocracy the recommendations the report makes to strengthen religious influence are “completely crazy” and will lead to “civil servants organising meetings between church groups and rapporteurs”, which would create a privileged lobbying channel.

“We have already seen church groups try to influence everything that is related to gender equality, human rights, non-discrimination regarding your gender and your sexual orientation,” she said, citing how religious groups “tried to prevent the parliament from calling for a ban on gay conversion therapy”.

She also pointed to campaigns by religious organisations against the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention against gender-based violence, saying they “place the traditional view of what a family should be above the protection of women from violence”.

Reproductive rights activist Ailbhe Smyth, who was involved in the successful campaign to legalise abortion in Ireland last year, said: “We have seen attempts in many countries – some successful – from the Catholic Church to stall or prevent legislation on issues such as equal marriage and abortion,” noting similar campaigns from “extreme right parties”.

Meanwhile, Pernet gave the example of a hypothetical future European Parliament text on reproductive rights which, if McGuinness’s recommendations went through, would mean rapporteurs could have to consult COMECE, which opposes these rights.

Mixing religion and politics

McGuinness’s report was prepared after consultation with 16 organisations in February. Half of those present were Christian.

The European Humanist Federation says the report’s recommendations are effectively “an endorsement of the requests made by Catholic organisations”. The federation was one of just three secular groups involved in the consultation.

Other groups consulted were Baha’i and Hare Krishna associations, one Muslim group, two Jewish groups, and the European Masonic Alliance.

openDemocracy understands that when humanists asked McGuinness whether she was listening more closely to religious voices, she said she did not have to treat all dialogue partners equally. When asked directly about this over email by openDemocracy, she did not respond.

According to Rozière, McGuinness’ own faith may have influenced her report, observing a desire amongst some political leaders in Europe “to strengthen the Catholic Church in reaction to what is perceived as an increasing influence of Islam and Muslim organisations”.

The Irish politician did not respond to requests for comment on this point either.

Mairead McGuinness, 2014
Niall Carson/PA Archive/PA Images.

Another Irish voice in Brussels understood to have worked on the report is Faerghas O’Beara, whose LinkedIn profile says he is McGuinness’s adviser and that he coordinates “Parliament’s dialogue with religious and philosophical organisations, based on Article 17”.

The fact that an Irish MEP and an Irish senior civil servant have had their hands in the report challenge the idea that Ireland has been moving towards less, not more, separation between church and state.

O’Beara has spoken at events with representatives of ADF International, the global wing of a US Christian right-wing ‘legal army’ which poured millions of dollars into Europe over the last decade, as openDemocracy has previously revealed.

His name is also on a leaked list of subscribers, from 2016, to a Google group for the previously mentioned Agenda Europe network, which campaigns against sexual and reproductive rights. Along with O'Beara, other names on the leaked list include two secretaries of state for the Vatican, other representatives from the Holy See, and the COMECE lobby group.

O'Beara also did not respond to requests for comment on this article.

A new political reality

McGuinness’s report has been shelved for now – a move welcomed by the MEP Rozière and her colleagues.

However, Rozière told openDemocracy “if we had not protested, the report would have been adopted with no one paying attention”.

She also pointed to the threat posed by far-right groups hoping to make big gains in next week’s European elections.

“We have seen the connections between the far-right and religious organisations,” she said. “They want to signal they are not hostile to churches.”

The risk, say MEPs and humanists, is that a more powerful far-right parliamentary grouping will back the proposals when they return to the parliament’s bureau in June.

Pernet explained: “The way politics is evolving in Europe would be more in favour of adopting these proposals.” Rozière echoed her concerns, saying “We should be worrying about what is going on in the next parliament.”

In response to the recommendations of the report, reproductive rights activist Ailbhe Smyth warned that “a Europe that is dominated by the extreme right will always target women and sexuality”, as she said that the Catholic Church has done for many years.

“Giving the Catholic or any other church privileges within the European Parliament is absolutely unthinkable,” she said. “It is completely contrary to the principles of equality in the EU and it simply must be resisted.”

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