President Buzek invited the non-confessional organisations to a meeting in the European Parliament on 30 November 2011 to discuss its implementation of the Article 17 dialogue. This took place after the Article 17 “summit” with the three EU Presidents, reported here.
Unfortunately the President was unable to attend until the last minute or two (he had to preside at a plenary session of the Parliament which also drew away for much of the time the three MEPs who came to parts of the meeting). The result was that the chair was taken by Vice-President Tokés, nominated by Buzek to be responsible for the Article 17 dialogue. Now, László Tokés is an admirable man – he was the Presbyterian priest who led the revolt in Hungarian-speaking Romania against the Ceauçescu regime. Later he was elected a bishop, then an national MP, then a European MEP, and then a vice-president of the Parliament. But he is, it seems, both blind to the appearance of potential bias in a bishop presiding over the Article 17 dialogue and strongly inclined to see personal insults where none exists.
He introduced the meeting with largely anodyne remarks (but see below) but before he could introduce the first speaker he was interrupted by Sophie in’t Veld MEP who said she had some questions about the way the meeting was organised.
Tokés: Please wait until President Buzek arrives because he organised the meeting and I have no answers.
Sophie in’t Veld
in’t Veld: President Buzek is detained presiding over the plenary session. I have been asking for answers to these questions for three weeks or more. I think the way the meeting has been organised is very questionable.
Tokés: I am in the chair and I ask you to wait.
in’t Veld:This is a democracy and it is right that questions about the organisation of a meeting should be asked before it starts. I insist on putting my questions on record. What were the criteria for deciding who should be invited? Why did some people get their invitations extremely late? How was the panel chosen and in what sense is it representative of the non-religious voices all across Europe? Why have my letters about Article 17 to President Buzek from the Platform for Secularism in Politics of 13 December 2010 and 12 July 2011 never been answered? And by the way, I object to your referring in your opening remarks to the Communist dictatorship of Romania and an “atheist dictatorship”.
Tokés: I know nothing about the organisation of this meeting and nothing of your letters.
in’t Veld: You were sent copies of them.
Tokés: No I had no copies. Do not be so aggressive!
in’t Veld: Why were my letters unanswered?
Tokés: Let us start the meeting.
in’t Veld: For the record, I see no validity in the meeting.
Sophie in’t Veld then left the meeting. Afterwards she wrote to President Buzek: see her letterhere and the attachment to it (an earlier, unanswered letter of 12 July) here.
Mr Tokés proceeded with the meeting. There were four invited speakers. Three were freemasons, the fourth David Pollock, President of the EHF. Two of the freemasons said that they had only been invited to speak in the past 24 hours!First to speak was Joseph Asselbergh, President of the Grand Orient of Belgium. He said that freemasonry was neither a religion nor a substitute for one nor a gathering of atheists – some freemasons were religious. They had an eclectic philosophy but saw the influence of religion on political power as a cause for concern. So they saw the Article 17 dialogue as questionable because it introduced dialogue of politicians with religion that did not exist in many EU states. The EU guarantee under Article 17(1) that it would not interfere in religious matters – so what was the dialogue about? It had to be about politics, economic and social issues.
He referred to the EU’s advisory board on bioethics which included many religious members. But religion – which was no more than opinions, albeit valuable ones – had no monopoly on ethics and was indeed often a disguise for ancient ethical systems. Religion interfered with women’s reproductive rights and saw religious freedom as the freedom for religion to interfere with the rights and freedoms of others. The dialogue should be only with those who would claim freedom for all, not just for themselves.
Denise Oberlin, the Grand Mistress of the Grand Feminine Lodge of France, spoke second, covering the virtues of secularism. She said that the non-religious majority in Europe was little heard. The European Parliament, as the only democratic body in the EU, had to pay attention to their views. She also expressed concern about the EU’s bioethics advisory board and talked of the inequality of women, closing with praise for the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics.
David Pollock of the EHF then spoke. He said he shared the concerns expressed by Sophie in’t Veld and found it very odd that Mr Tokés, as vice-president in charge of the dialogue, was unable to answer them. He expressed concern about the origins and nature of the dialogue and examined in detail the nature it should have, criticising both the EU institutions for not publishing minutes of the meetings and the churches for the way they wished to insinuate themselves into every aspect of the EU’s affairs. He said that, as had been said at a recent EPPSP meeting at which Mr Tokés had been present, the fact that the person in charge of the dialogue was a bishop would inevitably be seen as a sign of inherent imbalance however carefully Mr Tokés conducted himself in that role. His full speech is here.
The last speaker was Rüdiger Templin, president of the United Grand Lodges of Germany. He stressed that he did not represent his organisation: freemasonry was about self-development in humanist values but its organisations took no stands on policy. He deplored the present state of society, mentioning the violence he saw as prevalent among young people and the corruption and greed for power of top managers in finance and industry.
Mr Tokés then said he would address his critics. He said that he had not refused the floor to Sophie in’t Veld, only asked her to wait for President Buzek. As vice-president he had no executive function concerning his mandate, and so he had no role in selecting the speakers or the people to be invited: that had been done by people in the office of the President. He apologised for the lateness of the invitations. He said he was surprised at the intolerance shown by David Pollock in criticising him for being a bishop. David Pollock interrupted to say that his criticism had not been of Mr Tokés personally but of his appointment. If Sophie in’t Veld had been placed in charge of the dialogue with the churches, they might well have had a similar objection. Mr Tokés demurred. He then denied knowing anything of the reported demands of the churches.
Michael Cashman MEP had joined the meeting and said that Mr Tokés by his attempts to explain himself had only created greater concern about his lack of objectivity in his role, in which he was meant to represent the whole Parliament. If one had a vested interest, one should decline a related portfolio, or at least be absolutely certain that you showed absolute impartiality and objectivity. He called for the dialogue to be conducted with the utmost transparency, with full publication of all documents, calling on all present to tell his office of any refusal to reveal relevant documents, and said that without such openness concerns would grow and the dialogue would fall into disrepute.
Keith Porteous Wood, echoing his own remarks at the “summit” meeting earlier in the day, said that there was a fundamental flaw in the Article 17 dialogue, namely, that the topics on which the churches lobbied hardest were those opposite to the views of the people in the pews. When the Pope visited the UK, a poll showed that only 4% of Catholics agreed with their church’s doctrine on contraception, only 11% on abortion, and only 11% on homosexuality. It was totally wrong that EU policies could be influenced by church lobbying against such a background. The EU should use Eurobarometer to show the true views of the people of Europe on bioethical issues and issues concerning the start and end of life.
Pierre Arnaud Perrouty of the Centre d’Action Laique asked two questions of vice-president Tokés: would he continue in charge of the Article 17 dialogue if asked under the new President of the Parliament (President Buzek’s term is expiring), and if so, would he object to a second vice-president of opposite beliefs being appointed so as to re-establish balance?
Zsolt Szilágyi, head of Mr Tokés’s cabinet, said that they were only beginning the Article 17 process. He was sure that Messrs Buzek and Tokés were both open-minded – they had, after all, both visited the EPPSP when invited. The meeting had been arranged to parallel the meeting earlier in the year with religious organisations. It was open to everyone to attend, and invitations had been issued to all MEPs and their assistants – maybe 3-4,000 emails – almost a month ago. He agreed that the panellists were not representative but hoped that a European spirit would prevail despite disagreements. He repeated that it was the President who had made the relevant decisions.
Michael Cashman said that appearances mattered as well as reality. There were areas of work he would not undertake in the Parliament because he did not want to be accused of indulging a vested interest.
Pierre Arnaud Perrouty asked for an answer to his questions: Mr Tokés said ‘later’. David Pollock asked if minutes of the present meeting would be officially produced, as he had asked in his speech.
When Mr Tokés referred to Mr Cashman’s absence for much of the meeting, Véronique de Keyser MEP said that this was an improper remark given the call of the simultaneous plenary session.
Mr Tokés then replied to various points. He said he had been entirely objective in his opening remarks but had been attacked for being a bishop – a discrimination by profession. He refused such a pejorative, anticlerical qualification of his profession. Tolerance was required even of bishops. His church had risked everything in rebelling against Ceauçescu! He had, however, noted the proposals put forward by members of the panel, including the idea of minutes, to which he could see no objection. He regretted that the speeches made at the meeting with religious leaders had not been published. He even apologised for being in charge of the dialogue: he had not chosen the position but had inherited it from the vice-president he had replaced.
Véronique de Keyser MEP said that there was not a single person at the meeting who did not hold Mr Tokés’s office in high esteem and did not respect his dignity – but there were problems over his presiding over the Article 17 dialogue. She would not consider herself fitted to conduct a dialogue with the churches: equally, the non-confessionals wanted someone who could understand their language which she thought he did not. This was not discrimination against him or an attack on him personally.
Mr Tokés replied that Ms de Keyser had not been present when Mr Cashman had spoken and should not seek to mitigate his language, but he thanked her for her remarks on the dialogue.
The meeting was drifting to a conclusion when President Buzek finally appeared. He made some remarks about the need for a serious dialogue, and for it to be properly structured. He said he would circulate the speech he had intended to make (it will be posted here when received).
Keith Porteous Wood referred to the need, if a manifestly religious person was to preside over the dialogue, for someone of a balancing persuasion to be appointed alongside. There were desultory further remarks and Véronique de Keyser said that people should send their proposals for the dialogue to President Buzek. He said that he would pass on these to his successor (shortly to be elected by MEPs) but he was sure that Mr Tokés would give him a fair report of the meeting.
The Centre d’Action Laique made a short video of the meeting which may be seen here.
European Humanist Federation | 22 December 2011