Earlier this week, the European Commission hosted its 12th annual high-level meeting with religious leaders from across Europe. The group included Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Mormon, Jewish and Muslim faith leaders and the theme of this year’s discussion was: “Migration, integration and European values”.
The gathering was hosted by the First Vice-President of the Commission, Frans Timmermans, and it is to be welcomed that in seeking to shape a common EU response to the recent migration crisis, the European Commission recognises the important role played by local religious communities in helping immigrants to properly integrate into European societies. In particular, the Commission statement on the dialogue referred to “the vital role of education and grassroots outreach in improving integration and social cohesion in Europe.”
When large numbers of immigrants arrived in the EU last year, the vast majority of whom were Muslims from undemocratic countries such as Syria and Iraq, there was a certain amount of naïveté displayed by political leaders in relation to the challenge of integrating these people. In particular, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was criticised for her so-called “Culture of Welcome” and the casual claim that in Germany “we can manage”.
A more mature response by European political leaders is emerging today, partly in response to a strong backlash by their voters. The EU institutions too are more openly recognising that, while new immigrants may indeed be made welcome, particularly those fleeing war zones or persecuted by Islamist terrorists for their faith, there is a core set of European values which much be “embraced in the context of migration and integration.” This is still a long way from recognising that fundamental European values such as human dignity, freedom, democracy and the rule of law have their origins in Judaeo-Christian teachings, but it is a step in the right direction.
First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said at the gathereing: “Religious leaders play a pivotal role to spur the integration and participation of all their members in Europe as full Europeans, no matter the place of their cradle, no matter their creed. Through these dialogues we identify those common fundamental values that bind us, instead of harping on the issues that divide us.”
This week’s meeting took place within the framework of the ongoing dialogue with churches, religious, philosophical and non-confessional organisations as enshrined in Article 17 of the EU’s primary law, the Lisbon Treaty. The two previous Presidents of the European Commission, Jose-Manuel Barroso and Romano Prodi, took the dialogue very seriously and conducted it directly themselves.
It is noteworthy, that the current Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, sought to downgrade the importance of faith dialogue by delegating it to his First Vice President, and moving administrative responsibility for the dialogue out of his central services, yet another example of the poor judgement and leadership of Mr Juncker. The Commission President is coming under increasing attack from both inside the EU institutions and more widely, and speculating is mounting in Brussels that EU government leaders may be about to push him aside and ask Mr Timmermans to become President of the Commission.
Commission Vice President Timmermans was joined at the meeting by other EU institutional representatives Antonio Tajani, Vice-President of the European Parliament (the other EU institution whose president, Martin Schulz, has sought to downgrade the dialogue), and Ján Figel’, EU Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the European Union.
List of Participants at the Commission’s Dialogue with Faith Leaders:
- His Excellency Metropolitan ATHENAGORAS of Belgium, Exarch of the Netherlands and Luxemburg
- His Excellency Heinrich BEDFORD-STROHM, Bishop of Bavaria and Chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church of Germany (EKD)
- Imam Hassen CHALGHOUMI, Imam of Drancy (France) and former President of the Conference of Imams of France
- His Excellency Arie FOLGER, Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Community in Vienna
- His Excellency Albert GUIGUI, Chief Rabbi of Brussels and Permanent Representative to the EU Conference of European Rabbis
- Imam Benjamin IDRIZ, Director of the Islamic Community in Penzberg
- H.E. The Right Reverend Bishop Robert INNES, Anglican Bishop in Europe
- Her Excellency Antje JACKELÉN, Archbishop of the Church of Sweden
- Elder Patrick KEARON, President of the Europe Area of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
- His Excellency Jean KOCKEROLS, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Malines-Brussels and First Vice-President of COMECE
- His Excellency Bishop Czeslaw KOZON, President of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference
- Imam Yahya PALLAVICINI, President of the “Comunità religiosa Islamica” in Italy
- His Excellency POLYCARPUS, Metropolitan and Patriarchal Vicar of the Netherlands, Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch
- His Beatitude RASTISLAV, Archbishop of Prešov and Primate of the Czech and Slovak Orthodox Church
Ms Lakshmi VYAS, President of the Hindu Forum of Europe