The functioning of the Catholic Church in the European Union is highly legally-regulated, providing no room for any form of discrimination and respectful of the faith. The EU institutions – first of all the European Commission, but also the European Parliament – are guardians of this.
The key point is the existence of a legal basis in EU primary law for the dialogue, as provided for in Article 17.3 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the so-called Lisbon Treaty.
This article foresees an obligation – not a mere option, as recognised by EU officials themselves – to enter into a permanent dialogue with the Churches and confessional organisations on an EU level.
COMECE, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, kindly agreed to answer a few questions for Novena relating to relations between the Catholic Church of the EU and the EU institutions on the occasion of Europe Day today, May 9.
According to COMECE, the new European Commission and the European Parliament, which commenced activities last year, are ready for a deepening of the Article 17 dialogue.
Of course, as in many other areas, the COVID crisis has radically slowed down this process, but COMECE is preparing to relaunch it as soon as possible.
The Secretary General of COMECE, Fr. Manuel Enrique Barrios Prieto, celebrated in comments to Novena that “the confusion made by some actors (including within the institutions) between Article 17 dialogue and inter-religious dialogue seems to have been overcome”.
“The distinction is obvious and is needed to ensure compliance with what Article 17 provides – the dialogue between the EU on one side and Churches on the other”, Fr. Barrios Prieto said.
Different channels are used for the Article 17-related communication. First of all, there are annual high-level EU-religious leaders’ summits featuring meetings with the President of the European Commission and President of the European Parliament, which define the annual programs of the dialogue, principles and broader concepts.
Besides this, there are regular events organised by the European Parliament that are accessible to the public, placed under the responsibility of First Vice-President of the Parliament, Mairead McGuinness.
Furthermore, COMECE keeps up permanent contacts with the Dialogue Coordinator of the European Commission, Vincent Depaigne.
According to Fr. Manuel Enrique Barrios Prieto, “the legal basis provided by Article 17 TFEU and the meetings held with EU representatives at different levels provide space for input, contributions and dialogue, which also includes clarifications and getting to know each other’s positions, concerns and sensibilities better”.
“EU institutions also constantly underline during dialogue opportunities with Churches how fundamental and appreciated is their specific contribution to EU policies and processes”, the COMECE Secretary General said.
Article 17 dialogue also provides for an opportunity for the Catholic Church to influence EU policies.
According to COMECE, the most successful examples of cooperation at policy level include on work-life balance and support for the family; artificial intelligence and the importance of a human-centered, rights-based approach; the rejection of legal personality for robots; the peace element in external affairs; the protection of places of worship within the EU – “a positive topic of dialogue with the European Commission”, stressed Fr. Barrios Prieto; fake news and disinformation; and fundamental rights, including freedom of expression and freedom of religion.
Nevertheless, there are areas to be improved.
According to Fr. Barrios Prieto, some EU officials still fall prey to a confusion between civil society organisations and Churches as dialogue partners, sometimes even considering Churches as implicitly included in the term “civil society”.
However, he explained that “there are two separate articles for these actors (Article 11 TEU and Article 17 TFEU) and this distinction is not just formal: it is necessary both to recognise the specific identity of Churches (highlighted in Article 17.3 TFEU) and to reflect and respect what is provided for in Article 17.1 on the status of Churches in the Member States”.
“The distinction has by no means a symbolic significance.
“In dialogue practices, the distinction is reflected by the consolidated existence of annual high-level religious leaders’ meetings with EU institutions, of dialogue seminars organized with Churches and religious associations or communities, etc.”, Fr. Barrios Prieto affirmed.
Furthermore, according to the COMECE Secretary General, “some secularist actors give the impression of being more interested in watering down/creating hindrances to the contribution of Churches and in making the dialogue exercise pointless, rather than in bringing a constructive contribution to EU policies on the basis of Article 17”.
COMECE also wishes for the Dialogue Coordinator within the European Commission to be more effective in terms of having a direct link to the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, as was the practice earlier with former Presidents Jean-Claude Juncker and José Manuel Barroso.
In conclusion, Fr.Barrios Prieto stressed that “Article 17 TFEU refers to ‘the EU’. Therefore, the provisions cover all EU mechanisms, including its Agencies and the European External Action Service, not just the three main institutions”.
That suggests that COMECE is ready to include more EU actors into the Article 17 dialogue.