4 July, 2011
Reverend Canon Dr Gary Wilton, The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative to the EU; Canon of the Pro-Cathedral of Holy Trinity, and Visiting Programme Director at Wilton Park writes:
It is relatively easy to quote Henry Kissingers question Who do I call if I want to call Europe? The realities of constructing the answer in the form of the new European External Action Service [EEAS] are much tougher. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of Baroness Ashton and her team, theirs is a near impossible job. The task of creating a common voice for a union of 27 member states including some of the most significant ex-imperial powers of the world was always going to be an uphill struggle. And when you add religion into the mix, the near impossible demands the near miraculous to determine the way forward.
Recently, the Foreign Affairs Council of the EU has been grappling with the need to respond to the recent atrocities of religious persecution, not least those against Christian communities in different parts of the Middle East but also including violence against Muslim pilgrims.
At the meeting in January discussions ground to a halt. Whilst in complete support of religious freedom and in unanimous condemnation against violence the Council could not agree to recognise the recent plight of Christians or any other religion for that matter.
February was a long month of lobbying and inter-institutional negotiations. The conclusions of the 21st February Foreign Affairs Council were a significant step forward. The representatives of the 27 member states clearly condemned acts of violence against Christians, their places of worship, Muslim pilgrims and other religious communities. Indeed the conclusions were the first occasion when Ashton has publicly commented on religion. More than that, the conclusions were marked by a commitment to enhanced efforts on freedom of religion and support for initiatives in the field of intercultural and inter-religious dialogue in the spirit of openness, engagement and mutual understanding.
There is no doubt that the new EEAS is struggling to find its voice especially when it comes to religion. The European Parliament is urging the creation of a Religions Unit, and it is not surprisingly supported by the different religious bodies in Brussels.
Whatever the structure going forward, the EEAS needs to develop a confident ability to listen to and read religious events/the religious backdrop to events so that it can calibrate its response and speak robustly with a common voice for the common good. This will take time, and the EEAS will need respected friends along the way.
Gary is chair at Wilton Parks meeting; Promoting religious freedom around the world.
Read Garys previous blog.