Church delegation meets with the Austrian EU Presidency
A delegation of Austrian and European Church representatives met in Vienna on 23 July 2018 with Karoline Edtstadler, Secretary of State for Home Affairs of the Austrian government, to exchange views on the priorities of the Austrian Presidency of the EU Council.
Regular meetings of churches with the rotating EU Presidency have been taking place for more than 20 years. They are an expression of the regular dialogue between the EU and churches, religious, philosophical, and non-confessional organisations as established in Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
The starting point for this discussion was a working document entitled “Austrian Presidency of the Council of the EU - Reflections and Recommendations of the Christian Churches in Europe”, based on the declaration of the Catholic Austrian Bishops’ Conference on the Presidency, adopted last June.
In the case of subsidiarity and solidarity, the text expressed concern about the prevalence of the legal instrument of regulation. The EU Presidency should therefore be willing to question the Commission’s approach if it considers that “there are insufficient grounds for opting for a higher level of harmonisation.” Greater consideration of subsidiarity and proportionality could also contribute to the achievement of the often mentioned and important goal of “simplification”.
At the same time, however, the churches in Europe advocated “keeping subsidiarity and solidarity in a constructive balance.” They also recalled that subsidiarity “does not only mean returning competences to the Member States, but also the obligation of the Union to support the Member States in achieving higher goals in favour of the Common Good.”
On the subject of Brexit, the church representatives emphasized the need for efforts to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, “a visible frontier – Church representatives said - that jeopardises the common achievement of reconciliation and peace and divides citizens on both sides must be avoided.”
The churches paid special attention to the issue of EU social policy, given that the European Pillar of Social Rights, adopted in Gothenburg in 2017, should set minimum European social standards. The churches also called on the Austrian Presidency to create conditions for fairer taxation in Europe and to make progress in the negotiations on a common corporate tax base in the Council. Furthermore, the churches also proposed an EU–Convention for a Social Europe, which could also include social partners, civil society organisations, citizens and the churches into the discussion on a social model for Europe, able to address the challenges and needs in a global and ever-faster changing world.
In the field of migration and asylum policy the delegation invited EU leaders to work for a Common European Asylum System, and to make it an appropriate tool to manage migration. All participants agreed that Europe is in need of migrants for obvious reasons.
In this area, the church delegation presented to Secretary of State Edtstadler interesting proposals, such as “circular migration,” which should open up legal channels for low-skilled workers who meet the needs of receiving countries. They criticised the criminalisation of migrants and the poor respect for their fundamental rights, and called for their humane treatment in every phase of their journey, including when returning to the country of origin, recalling the principle of non-refoulment of persons in need of international protection.
The question of the EU integration of the West Balkans was widely discussed in conversation with Edtstadler. The churches and the secretary of state agreed that it was necessary to clarify the desired aim as soon as possible – full EU membership or a special status of these countries. Bishop Cilerdzic drew attention to the loss of attractiveness of EU membership in some of the West Balkan regions and warned that the vacuum the EU leaves will entice other political players to jump in. He suggested to reflect about a “peace conference” on West Balkan.
A final topic addressed during the meeting was climate change and the upcoming COP 24 meeting in Katowice in December. Churches and church relief agencies are profoundly involved in this upcoming United Nations climate summit. The churches hope for a further strengthening of EU leadership in the UN climate negotiations and a leading role of the Presidency in preparing an EU contribution to the climate summit COP 24 in December in Katovice. What is needed now is a concrete implementation of the commitments of the Paris Agreement based on fair rules and support for third countries, which are most affected by the effects of climate change. This could help also to alleviate climate change-related migration.
The delegation was composed of:
- DDr. Peter Schipka, Secretary General of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference;
- Bishop Dr. Michael Bünker, Bishop of the Protestant Church A.B. (Lutheran) in Austria;
- Fr. Athanasius Buk, priest of the Greek-Oriental Metropolis of Austria;
- Bishop Andrej Cilerdzic, Bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Austria, Vice-President of the Austrian Council of Churches;
- Dr. Michael Kuhn, Deputy Secretary General of the Commission of Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE);
- Rev. Sören Lenz, Executive Secretary of the Conference of European Churches (CEC).
N.B.: Parts of this press release are adapted from an article originally published by the Archdiocese of Vienna on 23 July 2018 in German titled “Kirchen trafen österreichische EU-Ratspräsidentschaft”.