Interview: Pasquale Annicchino on Religious Freedom in the EU

giorno-20-06-2014-25Has the European Union contributed to the advancement of religious freedom in Europe and beyond? Pasquale Annicchino thinks it has.

In June CIRIS hosted Dr Annicchino for a roundtable discussion in Cambridge on the status of religious freedom in the EU. A leading scholar on law and religion, Annicchino is a Research Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He has been Adjunct Professor of Law at BYU Law School (USA) and Visiting Professor at the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium). He is also a Senior Research Associate with CIRIS.

Here CIRIS managing director Judd Birdsall gets Annicchino’s thoughts on how the EU promotes religious freedom in its domestic and foreign policy—and how the EU approach differs from the US.

CIRIS: Is it possible for the EU to develop a unifying vision of religious freedom for all member states, or will there always be some variation between states based on their own church-state traditions and religious demography?

Annicchino: In this, and as well in many other fields, I think that it would be impossible to have a single legal framework among the different European states. What can be done is to establish common minimal criteria for the protection of freedom of religion or belief among the different European states. This effort is already underway and much has been achieved over the years, thanks largely to the role of the judiciary. Difference, for historical and cultural reasons, will always be there, but there is room for manoeuvring to ameliorate things that are not working properly.

CIRIS: You have done some comparative work on American and European religious freedom law. What are the comparative strengths and weaknesses you see on both sides of the Atlantic?

Annicchino: Of course there are many differences. The U.S. is a federal system where the Supreme Court has a very important role is setting the standards for the protection of religious freedom. The same thing cannot be said for the European Court of Human Rights or the Court of Justice of the European Union. With regards to religious freedom in foreign policy, the U.S. model based on the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 has attracted the attention of European policy makers, but the European institutional framework is much weaker as compared to the American one. However, it is my impression that in many parts of the world, Europeans better received when they try to advance religious freedom, as Americans are often associated to an imperialistic approach.

CIRIS: Americans tend to use the phrase “religious freedom” whilst Europeans use “freedom of religion of belief.” Do you regard these terms as synonymous or are there some subtle differences?

Annicchino: This has been changing recently, but it is true that this difference persists. Some authors argue that the expression “freedom of religion” would not cover “belief” which therefore would not have the same standard of protection. I tend to use them as synonymous, but for the sake of clarity I think it is better to use the expression “freedom of religion or belief.”

CIRIS: In your view, on the whole has the expansion of EU institutions been to the benefit or detriment to religious freedom in Europe?

Annicchino: The EU has always been reluctant to directly interfere with church/state arrangements within member states. But, yes, I think that the EU has most of the time benefited religious freedom. The EU provides legal recourse to European religious minorities that may feel discriminated against in their own country. And beyond Europe, we can look at the European External Action Service’s Guidelines for the Protection and Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief. I think the guidelines are a positive development.

CIRIS: Looking ahead, what are some of the major religious freedom-related issues that Europe will need to address?

Annicchino: As secularisation expands in Europe we will probably see more cases of clashes between religious freedom and other rights. The typical scenario would be to what extent we should grant exemptions to religious people when the enforcement of other rights are at stake: think for instance of LGBT rights. In this scenario the judiciary will probably have the most important role.

In terms of EU foreign policy, in 2016 we will have a review of the implementation of the Guidelines for the Protection and Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief. As religious persecution increases in many parts of the world it will be important to assess the impact of this tool over the last few years. The recent approval of the EU Action Plan on Human Rights reinforces the EU’s commitment to protect freedom of religion or belief.

CIRIS: How should the EU and its member states respond to the growing presence of Islam in Europe so to avoid the charge of “double standards” and “Islamophobia” when promoting religious freedom in Muslim-majority states?

Annicchino: This is an important issue, especially when the European Union aims at promoting religious freedom abroad. In some states there is the need to improve the treatment of Muslim minorities in order to fully grant them their right to religious freedom. I think, for instance, that Italy has a lot to do in this respect. As I have argued in my writing, EU states should aim at having a coherent and consistent approach on the protection of freedom of religion or belief internally and externally.

CIRIS: You have been actively involved in some collaborative European research projects on religion. Tell us about those.

Annicchino: RELIGARE and ReligioWest have been two of the most important research projects over the past few years that have studied the role of religion in the public sphere. They were both founded by the European Research Council, though their structures were rather different. RELIGARE was a consortium of different universities led by the Catholic University of Leuven. Religiowest is led by Prof. Olivier Roy at the European University Institute in Florence. I was lucky enough to collaborate to both projects, though I have been formally affiliated only with ReligioWest.

While RELIGARE focused mainly on Europe and the European Union, ReligioWest has a transatlantic dimension and methodologically is less focused on the role of law and more on the role of politics and public debates in shaping religion in the West. And I’m also involved in a new research project, Grassrootmobilised, also founded by the European Research Council. It’s based at the Hellenic Platform for European and Foreign Policy and is directed by Dr. Effie Fokas. It aims to study mobilisation around religious freedom cases before the European Court of Human Rights. As you can see, the research field is growing and it is rather interdisciplinary.


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