A religious policy by stealth

You probably haven't noticed it, but the European Union has just acquired a religion policy. Quite an elaborate one in fact. On June 24th, the Union's foreign ministers approved a set of "guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief". They spell out in great detail the ideas about religious liberty which the Union will put forward in its dealings with other countries.

Why should other countries care what the EU thinks about religious freedom, you might ask: the EU accounts for a diminishing share of the world economy, and rising powers like India and China are in no mood to be lectured. Now that may be true, but there are quite a few small to medium-sized countries that want better relations with the Union either because they dream of joining eventually or because they need access to trade and aid. So if EU dipomats put the new principles into practice, it could make some difference.

What principles, exactly? Some of the ideas laid out are not contentious, others very much so. There is much emphasis on the individual's right to adopt, profess, practise and abandon any set of religious or philosophical beliefs, including atheistic ones. The document carefully teases out the implications of various texts on freedom to which EU countries and most other states adhere, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The ICCPR does allow for some restrictions on religious freedom to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the freedom of others. But if any country cites "public morals" as a reason to limit freedom, the EU document states, it must do so with reference to more than one philosophical or religious tradition, and with due regard for "the universality of human rights".

The document also sets out very precise ideas on how to negotiate the fine line between hate speech and freedom of expression. Wherever there is advocacy of religious hatred which appears to be incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, the "EU will denounce it, and demand that it be investigated and tried by an independent judge." So there. But when contentious religious statements fall short of that bar, the EU will "resist any calls or attempts for the criminalisation of such speech." So woe betide anyone who fails to walk the particular tightrope which the Union has specified.

In many ways, the EU guidelines are a well-crafted piece of work. As Pasquale Annicchino, a member of the ReligioWest project which studies religious freedom at the European University Institute in Florence, told me, the ideas are a mixture of toughness and weakness. Despite their elaborate recommendations, and the promise of modest financial support for freedom advocacy, there is no reference to sanctions against violators—in contrast with the International Religious Freedom Act of the United States.

But two things seem a bit troubling. One is the paradox posed by a Union which makes detailed prescriptions to outsiders but carefully avoids imposing a particular religious regime on its own members. Article 17 of the Lisbon treaty allows EU members the full range of options, from the strict secularity of France to the state churches of England, Denmark and Greece. If the Union allows for such internal diversity, perhaps it should be more hesitant to micromanage the affairs of others. Principles can be upheld without micromanagement.

Another worry is the fact that such a weighty document was passed under a cloud of bureaucratic obscurity, almost unnoticed by the world, except for some lobby groups which welcomed it. If the EU is to have a religious-freedom policy worth the name, then political figures of real standing (the heads of government or foreign ministers of leading members, for a start) will have to offer some high-profile backing, and persuade people they have thought through some hard issues.

In Britain, legislation to curb "religious hatred" was passed in 2006 after heated and highly-publicised debates in both houses of Parliament, which brought about some big amendments. Hostile speech was only outlawed if it was deemed "threatening" in its intent; earlier versions which barred "abusive or insulting" language were eliminated.

The European Parliament also had quite a tough-minded debate on religious freedom before passing a resolution on the subject on June 13th; socialists voted against the motion because it over-emphasised the right of parents and communities to teach religion to their children and might, arguably, make it impossible to curb the teaching of literalist creationism. But that debate didn't attract much attention, any more than the approval of the "guidelines" did two weeks later.

A continent where Christianity, humanism and many other ideologies have flowered should, perhaps, have something to tell the world about religious freedom, if only by sharing its own bitter experience of conflict between religions and philosophies. But such messages cannot be delivered through long and little-read documents. Europe's leaders need to shout about the subject from the roof-tops, or else admit they don't care about it.