Aggressive Secularism at the Heart of the EU

by Paul Coleman

“A secular society is not an anti-religious one. Rather, it is one where fundamental beliefs that we disagree about – beliefs that provide strong motivation to some but mean little or nothing to those who do not hold them – are left aside in public debate about communal decisions.”  So says the European Humanist Federation.  Such a statement is no doubt intended to comfort the religiously minded that often hold the sneaking suspicion that the secular vision for society is, a contrario, anti-religion.

But do the secularists really practice what they preach, and is secularism really neutral in matters of religion and belief, as it is claimed. The recent case of Dr. Tonio Borg would suggest not.  A little known figure to most of Europe, let alone the rest of the world, Dr. Borg has suddenly taken centre stage at the heart of Europe and his case reveals aggressive secularism at its finest.

Dr. Borg is the Foreign Minister of the small island nation of Malta and is currently being considered for the post of European Commissioner in the field of health and consumer protection.  The European Commission is the executive branch of the EU, containing 27 commissioners; one from each member state.

A highly experienced lawyer and politician, Dr. Borg was proposed as a candidate by his home country, and was supported by both major political parties in Malta – no small feat, he explained.

All that remained was for Dr. Borg’s nomination to be approved by the European Parliament.  However, over the past few weeks a problem with Dr. Borg has emerged and it has become clear that gaining the approval of the parliament is not going to be easy: troubling as it may be for some, Dr. Borg is a devout Catholic.

The idea that the conservative nation of Malta may propose a Catholic nominee should not be too surprising, but the shock and outrage at Dr. Borg’s nomination – stemming from those who seem to believe that the EU is their own private club – has been circulating around Brussels for weeks, culminating in yesterday’s hearing at the European Parliament.

As Dr. Borg took his seat to be questioned by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), the liberal outrage was bordering on hysteria. How can a person who holds to mainstream Christian teachings on the definition of marriage and the sanctity of life possibly be a European Commissioner? How on earth can they be tasked with the health portfolio?

According to the European Humanist Federation, “His nomination would be a disgrace for the European Union.”  As they explained to the President of the European Commission, they are, “Strongly convinced that other candidates, who better reflect European values [i.e. agree with them], could be appointed.”  The homosexual activist organization ILGA-Europe (which, incidentally, receives most of its funding from the European Commission) and the International Planned Parenthood Federation have similarly stated that Dr. Borg’s views are “staunchly conservative and outdated.” While they at least admit that his Christian views are “not necessarily on topics of EU competence,” they argue that Dr Borg “views his strong opinions as ‘issues of conscience’, which would prevent him from being an impartial commissioner—especially with the public health portfolio.”

The sustained campaign of liberal outrage led to a somewhat bizarre spectacle at the European Parliament yesterday. It was almost as if two parallel hearings were taking place.  In the interrogation chair was the calm and assured Dr. Borg, a seasoned politician. He spoke of his main priorities if appointed – regulating the tobacco industry, improving the situation of patients in the EU and protecting consumer interests. So far, so EU.  It was hardly a statement that would draw millions of Europeans to witness their supranational democracy at work via the live internet stream. Yet from the floor of the parliament a second, parallel narrative was taking place.  It had nothing to do with Dr. Borg’s comments, his credentials, or EU competency.  It was all about his creed.

After a simple opening question on tobacco regulation, the first question of many similar ones was asked – how does Dr. Borg’s views on abortion square with “EU values”? Abortion is not part of EU competency, Dr. Borg calmly replied.  And so it began. MEPs questioned his views on “sexual orientation rights”, embryonic stem cell research, “sexual and reproductive rights”, the distribution of condoms and even divorce.  On and on the interrogation went, almost every question prefaced by the phrase, “we have read reports that…”  The lobbyists had been hard at work. Yet Dr. Borg’s answers were the same: the matters raised are not questions of EU competency, they are within the realm of national sovereignty, and in any case he will abide by the EU treaties and will respect the Charter of Fundamental Rights. He will not change his beliefs.

Despite an assured performance in the parliament, his nomination hangs in the balance.  The European Parliament vote on Dr. Borg will take place on 21 November, and it is hoped that he will fare better than Rocco Buttiglione, who in 2004 was rejected by the parliament because of his firmly held Catholic views on similar matters outside of EU competency.

Yet, regardless of the outcome of Dr. Borg’s nomination to the Commission, the campaign against him highlights the irony of the secular movement within Europe.

For some, it didn’t matter about the limits of EU competency, or that he was well credentialed and of good character.  As Dutch Liberal MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld explained after the hearing, “He gets a clear ‘no’ from me. Tonio Borg said he won’t abandon his views, and I’m very much opposed to them – his Europe isn’t my Europe.”

So, while the European Humanist Federation calls for fundamental beliefs that we disagree about to be “left aside” in public debate, it must be asked, were Dr. Borg’s beliefs left aside by his opponents? Did his beliefs not form the centre of the debate, and was it not the secularists who insisted this was the case?

Responding to the claim that their anti-Borg campaign may be construed as anti-religious, the European Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBT Rights explained that, “Dr Borg is entitled to his own views (religious or not), but using such extreme views to define law and policy, and making it a case of conscience above any questioning, would likely prevent him from being a fair-minded commissioner for public health.”

In other words, because Dr. Borg holds views on areas outside of EU competency that some disagree with, he cannot be an “impartial” or “fair-minded” commissioner.  This is surely aggressive secularism at its best: a Christian cannot apply to public office because to be a Christian with conviction is to be biased.  Yet the irony always seems lost on those pushing such a view.  As they claim to separate religion from the state, it is they who are bringing religion into a hearing that would otherwise have been about tobacco regulation and consumer rights.  Hence, so long as upstanding well-qualified people such as Dr. Borg are railed against on the basis of their beliefs and not their credentials, the religiously minded can be forgiven for refusing to take at face value the claim that the secularist vision for society is not an anti-religious one.

 

Paul Coleman is legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom in Vienna, Austria, where he specializes in international litigation with a focus on European law.

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