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‘Religion at the European Parliament’: purposes, scope and limits of a survey on the religious beliefs of MEPs

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‘Religion at the European Parliament’:
purposes, scope and limits of a survey
on the religious beliefs of MEPs
François Foreta
a Institute for European Studies - CEVIPOL, Université Libre de
Bruxelles (ULB), Brussels, Belgium
Published online: 26 Aug 2014.
To cite this article: François Foret (2014): ‘Religion at the European Parliament’: purposes,
scope and limits of a survey on the religious beliefs of MEPs, Religion, State and Society, DOI:
10.1080/09637494.2014.950909
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09637494.2014.950909
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INTRODUCTION
Religion at the European Parliament: purposes, scope and limits of a
survey on the religious beliefs of MEPs
François Foret*
Institute for European Studies - CEVIPOL, Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Brussels, Belgium
The project Religion at the European Parliament(RelEP) is an attempt to provide data
on the religious profile of the European Parliament (EP). Looking at what members of the
European Parliament (MEPs) believe and what they do as a result of these beliefs, the
research analyses the place of religion in European politics and its influence on political
elites, political socialisation, decision-making and coalition-framing. Three main incen-
tives motivated the RelEP project.
First, it is a contribution to the understanding of the new visibility of religion on the
agenda of the European Union (EU). Evidence of the secularisation of European societies
coexists with the recognition of the greater political and public salience of religious issues.
This apparent paradox has to be documented. After a long absence, religion has become a
hot topic in international scholarship since the beginning of the twenty-first century.
However, the focus has been more on international relations or public policy than on
politics. RelEP is a first attempt to map the religious composition of the EP, in contrast
with the abundant literature detailing religion in parliamentary politics in the USA over
decades.
Second, religion speaks about something beyond religion. As a social universe rooted
in tradition, in the depths of individual and collective identity and intertwined with the
state and national culture, it is a very sensitive barometer of the extent and modalities of
Europeanisation.
Third, the RelEP survey includes a comparison between member-states but also
between the supranational and the national levels. By comparing the way MEPs and
national members of Parliament (MPs) handle religion, something can be said on the
autonomy and specificity of the EU as a proper political order. Asking whether or not
what happens in Brussels reflects what happens in national societies invites us to search
for any bias possibly inherent in channels of European policy-making and representation.
The structure of this publication is as follows. This present contribution briefly
places the RelEP project in the state of the arton religion in European politics. It
describes the purposes and means of the survey, the constraints and opportunities met by
the research process, the main conceptual questions underlying the questionnaire and the
composition of the sample. The second contribution presents an overview of the main
findings. Case studies follow on member-states which have been particularly the focus
of the analysis. To complete the reflection, contributions on two non-European and
radically different countries, the USA and Israel, offer a critical distance to assess the
specificity of the EU.
*Email: fforet@ulb.ac.be
Religion, State & Society, 2014
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09637494.2014.950909
© 2014 Taylor & Francis
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RelEP in context: contribution to scholarship and internal dynamic of the project
The purpose of RelEP is to fill a blank in the knowledge of the cultural profile of
European political elites on the one hand, and on the specificity of interactions between
religion and politics at the supranational level on the other hand. The organisation of the
research reflects this purpose and complies with the constraints of a normative object such
as religion, calling for a flexible and adaptative approach.
An attempt to fill a gap in the existing scholarship
God is again in the focus of social sciences. Major theorists of the expected extinction of
religion by modernity have reversed their diagnosis and speak now of desecularisation all
over the world (Berger 1999). Europe remains the exception (Berger, Davie, and Fokas
2008), with a steady decline of beliefs and practices. Religion does not disappear but
mutates into a memory, a ritual provider or ethos (Davie 2002). Faith is less and less
regulated by institutions and absolute truth, and more and more an individual relativistic
choice. Its political effects persist, but mainly as a diffuse influence or symbolic material
(Capelle-Pogacean, Michel, and Pace 2008; Willaime 2004).
If spiritual evolutions are well documented by sociologists of religion, linking
European integration and religion is not easy for political scientists. Europe is frequently
considered more as a civilisational and geographical entity than as a political system
(Huntington 1993; Jenkins 2007). As a discipline rooted originally mainly in international
relations and political economy with a realist mainstream, European studies has for long
been little receptive of such ideational factors as religion, apart from historical or
normative approaches (Habermas 2010; Weiler 2003; Weigel 2005) offering inputs in
the debate on the Christian heritage of Europe but saying little on its contemporary effects.
For a long time, religion was not among the usual suspectsin European studies, given
the interest-driven and functionalistmainstream view inthis field. This has changed in the last
decade, with a wave of new research by established or new scholars acknowledging the
salience of the religious question. The religious issue has become totally congruent with the
identity-turnrecently taken by scholarship on European integration: religion is being
rediscovered as a part of collective culture and memory likely to frame policy preferences.
The normalisationof the EU, which is more and more seen as a polity to be compared to
other polities of the past and the present, takes us back to one of the oldest questions of
political science: relationships between spiritual and secular powers. To fight the deficit of
legitimacy of the EU, many voices call for a politicisation of the bloc in order to organise and
solve conflicts in European arenas. If politicisation means searching for controversial issues
able to polarise collective preferences and to mobilise coalitions in democratic debates,
religion is a likely candidate.
For empirical reasons regarding the difficulty of accessing data and the reluctance of
actors to express their beliefs, the focus is frequently on relatively open sources:on
relationships between denominational lobbies and the European Commission (EC)
(Massignon 2007; Leustean 2012; Mudrov 2011; De Vlieger 2012), on impacts of religion
on the legitimisation of the EU (Foret 2009), on how European law may relate to religion
(McCrea 2011), and on how national churchstate arrangements evolve in the context of
European integration (Madeley and Enyedi 2003; Robbers 1997; Foret and Itçaina 2011;
Leustean and Madeley 2009). The resilience and perhaps even the resurgence of the
divide between sacred and secular forces in attitudes towards Europe, voting and party
structuring in European elections are suggested (Nelsen, Guth, and Highsmith 2011;
2F. Foret
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Broughton and ten Napel 2000; Minkenberg 2009,2010; Van der Brug, Hobolt, and de
Vreese 2009; Hobolt et al. 2011; Chenaux 2007; Kaiser 2007; Fontaine 2009). The actual
effects of religion in Brussels politics and policies are far less documented.
Much remains to be known on this potential role. Research tends to focus on
philosophical and/or legal aspects, or on phenomena relatively accessible, such as lobby-
ing. To collect and objectify data regarding religious impact on practices and decisions of
politicians is more challenging. That is the purpose of RelEP.
The empirical study
Why the European Parliament?
The European Parliament is the largest sample of European political elites. Its election by
universal suffrage in 27 (at the time of the survey) national spaces makes it a good
reflection of the cultural and religious diversity of European societies. As an assembly
expressing popular sovereignty, it is the most political arena of the EU where the full
range of ideological visions can be expressed and where dissent is the most likely to
emerge. In European decision-making, the EP is frequently the place where conflicts
occur. Its very representative nature predisposes it to be the privileged forum for the
interference of religion in politics.
An empirical survey was carried out between 2010 and 2013, leading to the comple-
tion of a questionnaire by 167 MEPs. The purpose was to study the role of religion in the
activities of MEPs in order to understand to what extent and how religion becomes
political. Religion (or secondarily philosophical world view) was considered at three
levels: first, as a personal inspiration likely to intervene in the decision of the representa-
tive; second, as a vector of socialisation building bridges or digging gaps between
established belongings (party, national and denominational), through participation in
working groups or interactions with religious interest groups; third, as a political issue
to be dealt with which questions the usual rationalisation of the European policy process.
A questionnaire distributed to all MEPs was used as the common analytical framework
for all teams in charge of their respective national cases. This questionnaire was supple-
mented by two other sources. First, relevant case studies were carried out on religiously
loaded policy issues discussed at the EP. These policy case studies are complementary to the
findings offered by the survey and go further down the path opened by some thematic
questions (especially on the Christian heritage of Europe, Turkey and bioethics). National
teams may have chosen to deepen such and such a policy issue according to the relevance
of the topic regarding their respective MEPs. Second, data were gathered to compare the
way MEPs relate to religion to what we know of national representatives. The purpose was
to assess whether there is a specificity in the level of secularisation of European legislators
and, subsequently, whether it shows a secularising effect of the EU selection and decision-
making process. As the quantity and quality of data on national political elites and religion
are very different from one country to another, results may vary significantly.
An attempt was also made to discuss European specificities by confrontation to non-
European cases. Specialists on the USA and Israel were invited to offer an insight of
religion in parliamentary politics in these countries while using as much as possible the
same thematic framework followed by the RelEP team. The purpose is to describe
interactions between religion and politics in other modern democratic societies and to
observe similarities and differences with the EU. The USA is also particularly interesting
as the American literature on religion and politics is highly developed and works as a
Religion, State & Society 3
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source of inspiration of the RelEP project on many points. Of course, Israel and the USA
are very specific models regarding the strength of American civil religion and religiosity
and the constitutive nature of Judaism for the Israeli state. To a certain extent, they appear
as most different casesfor the EU, according to a common practice in comparative
politics to confront opposite realities. Israel and the USA can be seen as kinds of control
variables highlighting possible features inherent in European multi-level governance
based on compromise and hybridisation, but also similar patterns at work in all parlia-
ments and societies despite radically different contexts.
A flexible methodology required by a difficult object
Regarding the methodology, the choice was twofold: on the one hand, to use a questionnaire
with closed questions in order to facilitate the commensurability and the aggregation of
answers; on the other hand, to openthe questions when possible during the face-to-face
interviews by inviting MEPs to develop and clarify their statements. This dual approach
offered a way to produce a global and systematic image of the sample, while leaving room
for adaptation in order to integrate variations and unexpected directions.
Similarly, the gathering of data relied on several options. Face-to-face interviews,
phone interviews and online surveys were combined to maximise the number of respon-
dents. Face-to-face interviews have the advantage of allowing in-depth interactions and
the collection of extensive information. They also provide the opportunity to grasp the
emotional and normative dimension of a topic such as religion and to adopt an empathic
approach to an individuals incentives. That is the reason why, when possible, face-to-face
interviews were preferred, especially for MEPs particularly involved with religious issues.
Conversely, a survey via the internet also has many points in its favour. It is the option
most often used by large-scale research projects on MEPs
1
for several reasons which are
also valid for RelEP. It is cost-efficient and flexible, an important factor when the
questionnaire is used in nine languages as in our research. It allows the questionnaire to
be adapted to the interviewees (for example, to ask MEPs which denomination they
belong to only if they say that they do in fact belong to one). It is a way of reducing
the possibility of errors in collecting and coding data and of increasing the ease of
aggregating them, a factor of some importance when several national teams are at work.
It reinforces anonymity, a crucial dimension on sensitive issues like religion. It neutralises
the effect of the interviewer, always a possible interference when a normative choice is at
stake. It gives more time to the respondent. An internet-based approach may be well
adapted for elite surveys which target a busy, mobile and geographically dispersed public,
difficult to reach physically but used to new technologies.
Interviews were conducted and questionnaires implemented in most cases in the mother
tongue of the MEP by a native speaker. National teams of researchers managed the
interactions with their representatives. This is important for two reasons. First, the linguistic
abilities of MEPs should not be overestimated, and a significant proportion of them are not
fluent or even literate in English. Second, religion is an intimate part of collective and
individual identity and it is better to tackle it within the cultural universe specific to each
language. The work by national teams is also justified in the exploitation of data. The results
have to be interpreted not only globally but also on a state-by-state basis, as national
affiliation remains the most discriminatory variable. Besides, this enables one to put the
data into national contexts, focusing in particular on two elements: the general relevance of
religion in the national debate on Europe; and the comparison with the place of religion in
domestic political life and in the visions of national elites of each country.
4F. Foret
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The choice to work preferably in the national language of the MEP and with a
researcher highly familiar with the national debate on religion and politics comes with a
cost. It would be very expensive and time-consuming to mobilise a team per member
state.
2
An online survey was diffused to all MEPs in two waves with little spontaneous
feedback. Most answers were gathered by direct contact through the work of national
teams or of research fellows hired in Brussels. To maximise efficiency, the choice was
made to focus efforts on larger member-states with the biggest delegations at the EP. The
availability and willingness of MEPs to answer was another major constraint in the
constitution of the sample. The case studies developed by contributors are the result of
such choices and constraints.
Breaking down the sample: MEPs in their diversity
An interview-based research study of a public as difficult to access as MEPs and on a
topic as controversial as religion is empirically challenging. The questionnaire was
applied to 167 out of 736 MEPs, that is 22.69% of the representatives elected in 2009,
the year of reference taken for all indicators. This percentage is comparable to that of
many large surveys carried out on the EP or other assemblies. For example, the landmark
analysis by Benson and Williams, Religion on Capitol Hill, relied on a study of 80
members of Congress out of 535 (about 15 per cent) (Benson and Williams 1982).
When possible, findings by RelEP were compared to data produced by other surveys
(Hix, Scully, and Farrell 2011; the PartiRep network) and no visible discrepancies were
observed. Answers by MEPs were also compared with answers to the same questions
taken from the European Values Study by ordinary citizens. The purpose of the RelEP
survey was to reconcile realities in the field (the presence or absence of opportunities to
have interviews) with the concern to avoid any major bias likely to distort the data. At the
end of the research process, the result can be said to be satisfying. Several variables are
discussed to identify the sample of MEPs and what this may mean for the findings on the
religious preferences of MEPs: their nationality, gender and age, political group at the EP,
national political party, seniority at the EP, and memberships of thematic committees.
Distribution by country
The survey was submitted to representatives from 27 member-states (Croatia being not yet
integrated). MEPs from 16 member-states responded. In this global sample, there is an
expected prevalence of larger countries (France, Germany, Italy, Romania, the UK,
Poland, Spain). Several member-states are not included because of refusals or silence
from their MEPs: Baltic and Scandinavian countries, Portugal, Malta, Cyprus, Slovenia,
Slovakia. These countries would have offered interesting case studies, especially northern
countries offering examples of Protestant cultures in interaction with Europe. Beyond
reluctance to answer on the part of their representatives, these countries are small or
medium-sized, and consequently have small delegations, a limit to the opportunity to
gather data. Three quarters (72.46%) of the sample are MEPs from older member-states
(before 2004), but there are also significant Polish and Romanian delegations. In the final
sample, there is a majority of representatives from Catholic societies and a minority from
Protestant societies. MEPs from Orthodox countries are also fairly well represented,
though mostly by Romania.
In the final analysis, eight member-states are most specifically dealt with by national
teams of researchers (France, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, the UK, Austria, Poland,
Religion, State & Society 5
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Spain). The focus on these eight countries results from a mix between analytical choices
and the hazards of fieldwork. For example, a contribution was scheduled on Romania but
in the end the researchers in charge of this case were not able to deliver it. Efforts were
mainly targeted on these eight national delegations in order to gather as many interviews
as possible. Overall, the purpose was to achieve a balance: in terms of denominations (five
societies with clear Catholic majorities, two with a strong historical presence of both
Protestantism and Catholicism, one Anglican usually associated with Protestantism in
social surveys); in terms of legal and institutional systems dealing with religion (from the
nominally established church in the UK to laïqueFrance, with several intermediary
cases including consociational models); in terms of very secularised (France, the
Netherlands) and less secularised (Poland, Italy) societies; large and medium countries;
founding member-states and latecomers in the EU.
Since RelEP constitutes the first attempt to gather data on the religious composition of
the EP, and since many MEPs declined to answer, findings are to be interpreted with due
caution (Table 1).
Distribution by gender
The sample is more masculine than the whole EP (72.46% as opposed to 65% in the EP
elected in 2009 (see Corbett, Jacobs, and Shackleton 2011, 53)). It is difficult to infer
anything from this fact. The difference between the religiosity of men and women is
tending to become less salient than it used to be in European societies. There is still a
gender gap, as women are likely to be more religious, but this influence on the specific
cases of MEPs is probably without major significance (Table 2).
Table 1. Distribution of respondents by country.
Member-state Share of the sample (%) Share of seats in the EP (%) Difference (%)
France 14.97 9.78 5.19
Germany 14.97 13.45 1.52
Italy 11.38 9.78 1.59
Romania 10.18 4.48 5.70
United Kingdom 10.18 9.78 0.40
Poland 8.38 6.79 1.59
Belgium 5.99 2.99 3.00
Czech Republic 5.39 2.99 2.40
Netherlands 4.79 3.40 1.39
Austria 4.19 2.31 1.88
Hungary 2.99 2.99 0.00
Ireland 2.40 1.63 0.76
Spain 1.80 6.79 5.00
Greece 1.20 2.99 1.79
Luxembourg 0.60 0.82 0.22
Bulgaria 0.60 2.31 1.71
Table 2. Distribution of respondents by gender.
Gender Share of the sample (%) Share at the EP (2009) (%) Difference (%)
Female 27.54 35 7.46
Male 72.46 65 7.46
6F. Foret
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Distribution by age
The average age of the sample is 54, the youngest MEP of the sample being 28 and the
eldest 77, with 80% of representatives being over 46. The distribution across generations is
comparable to that of the whole EP, and roughly speaking is not so different from that of
national political elites. No significant influence is expected from this variable (Table 3).
Distribution by political affiliation
Regarding political affiliation, the representativeness of the sample is very good. The only
small bias is a slight over-representation of the European Peoples Party (38.32% in the
sample, 36.01% in the EP), and a small under-representation of the Socialists and
Democrats (21.56% as opposed to 25%). Other gaps are not significant. The ideological
diversity within political groups at the EP is also well represented as representatives of
about 70 different national parties responded to the survey (Table 4).
Distribution by seniority at the EP
Another important variable is seniority, as the socialising influence of the EP is likely to
grow with the years in office. Again, the sample is largely congruent with the whole
Table 3. Distribution of respondents by age.
Age (intervals) Number of MEPs interviewed Share of the sample (%)
2630 4 2.40
3135 4 2.40
3640 14 8.38
4145 9 5.39
4650 26 15.57
5155 27 16.17
5660 35 20.96
6165 27 16.17
6670 13 7.78
7175 7 4.19
7680 1 0.60
Table 4. Distribution of respondents by political group.
Political group
Share of the
sample (%)
Share of seats in
the EP (%)
Difference
(%)
Group of the European Peoples Party 38.32 36.00 2.32
Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists
and Democrats
21.56 25.00 3.44
Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats
for Europe
12.57 11.41 1.16
Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance 7.19 7.47 0.29
European Conservatives and Reformists Group 7.19 7.34 0.15
Confederal Group of the European United Left/
Nordic Green Left
5.99 4.76 1.23
Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group 3.59 4.35 0.76
Non-Attached Members 3.59 3.67 0.08
Religion, State & Society 7
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assembly. In both cases, roughly half of MEPs are first timers(53.29% of the sample as
compared with 49.6% of all MEPs). Almost a quarter of the sample (23.5%) have served
three terms or more (Table 5).
Distribution by committees
The institutional diversity of the EP is also represented in the sample with regard to the
number of committees to which MEPs belong. There are no possible systematic correla-
tions between membership of a committee and interest in religious issues. Religion is too
much of a low-profile issue to structure such affiliations, and MEPs have their say but are
not always able to choose where they will sit (Corbett, Jacobs, and Shackleton 2011, 146).
Besides, the size of the committees ranges from 24 to 76 members, which automatically
makes their statistical weight very unequal. However, the working environment offered by
the different committees may influence the way MEPs deal with religion. It is therefore
important to have a large picture encompassing numerous policy sectors. This is the case
with the sample of interviewees (Table 6).
Table 5. Distribution of respondents by seniority.
Number of terms in the EP Number of MEPs Share of the sample (%)
1 78 46.71
2 50 29.94
3 24 14.37
4 9 5.39
5 4 2.40
6 1 0.60
Table 6. Distribution of respondents by committee membership.
Committee
Number of MEPs
interviewed
Share of the sample
(%)
Regional Development 18 10.78
Foreign Affairs 17 10.18
Economic and Monetary Affairs 14 8.38
Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs 14 8.38
Employment and Social Affairs 13 7.78
Industry, Research and Consumer Protection 11 6.59
Budgets 10 5.99
Environment, Public Health and Food Safety 10 5.99
Development 8 4.79
Internal Market and Consumer Protection 8 4.79
Agriculture and Rural Development 8 4.79
Culture and Education 7 4.19
Legal Affairs 7 4.19
International Trade 6 3.59
Transport and Tourism 5 2.99
Fisheries 4 2.40
Budgetary Control 3 1.80
Constitutional Affairs 2 1.20
Womens Rights and Gender Equality 1 0.60
Financial, Economic and Social Crisis 1 0.60
8F. Foret
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Scientific guidelines of the project
The survey had three main lines of investigation. A first line considers how to identify
religion as a political factor in parliamentary politics and how to measure its effects on
various political activities and affiliations (national, denominational, party). A second line
concerns religion as a policy issue. As such, it has a variable salience across policy
sectors. Besides, it may challenge the usual search for compromise which rules European
policy-making as it sets some values as non-negotiable. Hence, the purpose is to find out
whether religion is business as usualin parliamentary politics or creates specific con-
flicts, cleavages and strategies. A third and final line investigates the way the parliamen-
tary institution is able to frame the religious preferences of politicians on the one hand and
religious issues on the other. The framing of individual preferences can be assessed by
observing the effect of the longevity of legislators within the EP on how they handle
religion. As regards religious issues, the socialising effect of the EP institution can be seen
if the amount of time a controversy involving moral choices related to religious beliefs has
been active is shown to correlate with a kind of agreeing how to disagree. Either the
need for compromise prevails in order to protect the functioning of the EP and politicians
develop ways to comply with this constraint while making symbolic uses of religion, or
religion prevails as an absolute value.
These transversal lines of investigations underlie the questionnaire used as a frame-
work for RelEP. Questions are gathered in five thematic sets: socio-political profile of
MEPs; impact of religion on their work and on the functioning of the EP; religion in the
political practice and political socialisation of MEPs; religion across policy sectors;
individual religious beliefs, behaviours and attitudes of MEPs. Letters between brackets
refer to the place of questions in the questionnaire at the end of this introduction.
Socio-political profile of MEPs and religion
A first set of questions (AG) gathers information on the socio-political profile of MEPs
(nationality, age, political membership in terms of party and political group, seniority in
the EP, participation in committees). The relatively small size of the sample is not likely to
provide evidence of very significant gaps in terms of age and gender. Nationality is
expected to act as the main marker. National belonging is still the most reliable prediction
factor in the framing of European identity and relationship to the EU, as well as the most
discriminating variable in value surveys. The hypothesis is that national political culture
and compliance with the national historical model of relationship between politics and
religion are major parameters defining the attitudes and behaviours of MEPs.
Questions on party membership and political groups are used to map the ideological
sphere of the EP, and to see whether responses regarding religion duplicate formal
political divides. On this point, the hypothesis is twofold. On the one hand, gaps between
political families are reducing and blurring, as religious/philosophical loyalties are declin-
ing and individualising. On the other hand, visible polarities still remain as path depen-
dencies: members of parties with a history of religious affiliation are likely to display
more proximity to religion, and members of a party with a strong secularist/antireligious
tradition are likely to be neutral or hostile towards religion. For political groups at the EP,
tactical necessities of coalition-making at the European level may lead to transgressing
without deleting ideological cleavages. The best example is the European Peoples Party.
Its heritage of Christian Democracy has been diluted by successive enlargements, but still
remains, and may even have been reactivated in recent years. Social Democrats and
Religion, State & Society 9
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Liberals are committed to supporting fundamental rights. This may lead to alliances with
religious forces on social rights, but oppositions on ethical issues (gender, sexual prefer-
ences, reproduction). Extreme right formations may promote culturalist views rooted in
hard-core Christianity to defend national identity and/or European civilisation or various
versions of paganism, but also use secularism as a resource for attacks on Islam. The
relationship between party and group memberships is in itself interesting: some national
parties with a strong religious reference struggle to integrate stable coalitions inside the
EP, religion sometimes acting as a mischief-maker.
The number of terms an MEP has been sitting in Brussels and Strasbourg provides a
fundamental indication to assess the socialising capacity of the EP, and the way individual
religious preferences are dealt with and expressed in the European arena. Here, literature
about religion in American legislative politics tells us that the experience of an MP is
crucial (Oldmixon 2005, 35 ff.). Seasoned legislators are not necessarily more secularised;
in fact the House of Representatives does not seem to have the ability to alter the personal
religious preferences of its members. But they are are more likely than newcomers to
compromise on moral issues. The more deals you have cut in the past, the more likely you
are to cut some more. A socialising effect of the institution can be acknowledged in the
form of a concern to make the machine work. However, considering the turnover at the
EP, this cumulative effect of successive terms is bound to be restricted.
Taking account of committees in which MEPs are active provides an opportunity to
observe possible correlations between levels of religiosity and fields of action. The
hypothesis is that a high level of religiosity may influence involvement in some key
policy domains where the religious dimension has a specific salience, notably those
related to fundamental rights, education and culture and to a lesser extent foreign
affairs. But again, institutional and political factors matter: an MEP is not necessarily able
to choose the committees he or she is a member of, or has the time to develop a real
specialisation in a given field.
Impact of religion on the work of MEPs and on the functioning of the EP
A second set of questions (14) deals with MEPsassessments of the impact of religion
on the way the EP works. The purpose is to establish whether or not religion as a multi-
dimensional variable has effects on overall functioning of the EP (1). More precisely,
religion may contribute to or hamper the formation of various belongings and loyalties
(political groups, nationality, denomination).
The cohesive or divisive effect of religion on political groups (2) has to be understood
according to its impact on their ideological identity. The hypothesis here is that it has a
dual impact: religion does not work as a matrix encompassing party identity totally, but
nevertheless works as a polarity attracting MEPs in greater or lesser numbers depending
on their political affiliation, the right being roughly speaking closer than the left to the
religionpole.
The second belonging/loyalty to which religion may contribute is nationality (3). All
MEPs of the same nationality may be predisposed to adopt the same attitude towards
religion because of the influence of the national model of churchstate relations, because
of a similar values profile or because of compliance with the mainstream orientation of the
national electorate. Nationality may also act in favour of coalition-building inside political
groups. MEPs of the same nationality in the same political family are likely to share a
common ideological posture towards religion and to react similarly to religiously-loaded
issues. However, MEPs of the same nationality in the same political group can belong to
10 F. Foret
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different national parties with different historical relationships to religion (see for example
the Italians inside the EPP with more or less proximity to the former Christian
Democracy).
The third belonging/loyalty upon which religion may act is of course denomination
(4). Here, cleavages may occur among different faiths. Another possibility is the existence
of a gap cutting across denominations between conservative and liberals; or a more
general division between religious and non-religious individuals. Denominational belong-
ing has to be balanced by level of religiosity. Sociology of religion in contemporary
Europe suggests that it works as a heritage and a cultural marker but not as a specific
matrix defining the substance of political decision. Denominational belonging is likely to
create a path dependence influencing the attitude and behaviour of MEPs, but the level of
integration into a religious system may come into play to differentiate a given MEP from
others of the same or of different denominations. To give an example, a Catholic MEP
may be more influenced by the logic of laicisation(separation between church and state)
than a Protestant MEP who may be more in tune with the logic of secularisation (dilution
of religion in the social world and combination with political modernity and national
identity). However, the more or less conservative positions of the two MEPs may result
more from their respective levels of religiosity (deeper integration within a religious
tradition, a stronger inclination towards conservatism) than from their different faiths.
Religion in the political practice and political socialisation of MEPs
A third set of questions (510) tackles religion in the political practice and political
socialisation of MEPs. The interference of religion with politics is to be understood firstly
in terms of the frequency with which an MEP takes religion into account. Secondly, the
form of interference determines its potential effect, either as source of personal inspiration,
as issue, as interest group or other forms to be specified. Of course, religion may act on
parliamentary life in different simultaneous forms.
Another way to understand the place of religion in the EP is to compare it with the
place of religion in the national political space as reflected by the experience of MEPs in
domestic politics in their home country. Considering the limited capacity of European
institutions to alter the personal preferences of their agents, we see that the EP is not likely
to change the views of MEPs on the relationships between religion and politics, framed as
these views are by the MEPsnational socialisation. A final dimension of religion in the
political socialisation of MEPs refers to religious (or philosophical) lobbying. The fre-
quency of interactions between MEPs and religious or secular interest groups
3
is said to
be regular but not very frequent, depending on which problems are on the agenda and
above all the commitments of MEPs on relevant issues mobilising the religious civil
society. The usual patterns of lobbying suggest that these interactions flow through
national and denominational channels: an Italian Catholic MEP is likely to be particularly
but of course not exclusively targeted by organisations sharing the same nationality
and faith.
Religion across policy sectors
A fourth set of questions (1116) investigates the policy sectors and thematic debates
where religion is the most salient as an issue on the European agenda. MEPs are asked
whether they consider religion as an issue per se requiring a specific policy from the EU
(12). Religion is also investigated as identity matter related to reference to the Christian
Religion, State & Society 11
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heritage of Europe in treaties (13) and to Turkey (14), or more generally to the EUs
relationships with the rest of the world (15). Finally, data are also collected on an internal
ongoing controversy in the EP about the meetings of the president of the EP with religious
leaders, an indicator of the opinion of MEPs about the institutional recognition of
churches and other faith bodies as partners in European governance (16).
Individual religious beliefs, behaviours and attitudes of MEPs
The questions in the last part of the questionnaire (1721) tackle the religious beliefs,
practices and attitudes of MEPs. Questions are borrowed from international values
surveys
4
to compare the religious profiles of MEPs and average Europeans. MEPs are
asked whether they belong to a denomination, which one, their (non)observance, the kind
of religiosity they have (belief in a personal God, a life force . . .), and their attitude
towards indicators of cultural liberalism regarding the place of religion in society (state-
ments on whether politicians should have religious values, on whether religious leaders
should influence public affairs and on the regulation of agents performing abortion). The
purpose is to measure the congruence between the beliefs of MEPs as members of a
European political elite and those of European citizens. This is a way of establishing their
representativeness, the extent to which they reflect the social reality of religion in their
respective home countries. Subsequently, the next step is to discuss any potential dis-
crepancy between the way European elites and societies relate to religion, and whether
various uses of religion as a political resource to justify European policies and the
European polity are efficient.
Guidelines for contributors
In the analysis of the eight case studies presented by the contributions, a common
framework was proposed to authors, with the flexibility required to comply with national
specificities and the variable relevance of indicators (concerning for example the unequal
importance of religious lobbying or the salience of religion in questions asked by MEPs or
in their communication). This framework was threefold.
First, contributors were asked to present briefly the articulation of politics and religion in
the country in question: religionstate model; historical evolution; level of secularisation;
presence or not of a Christian Democratic tradition in party politics; level of conflictuality of
religious issues in domestic politics and incentives to invest such issues; legitimacy of
religious lobbying regarding the pluralist/unitary vision of public interest; link between
religion and support for Europe or Euroscepticism; position taken by national politicians in
the debate about the Christian heritage of Europe in the 1990s2000s.
Second, contributors were asked to develop the analysis of data produced by inter-
views with national MEPs on the basis of the questionnaire acting as common framework
and to explain possible specificities in the light of the national model of articulation
between politics and religion.
Third, it was suggested to contributors that they offer material and interpretation for
comparison with, one the one hand, national (or infranational) MPs and politicians, and on
the other hand, citizens of the member-state, by reference to large-scale pre-existing
surveys (EVS, Eurobarometer, national opinion polls). The purpose was to measure the
potential specificities linked to the function of MEP regarding other political offices and
political constituency. This can also be done by looking at positions taken by national
MEPs at the EP in significant controversies involving religion.
12 F. Foret
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Summary
After the above short presentation of the general findings of RelEP on the basis of the whole
sample, this summary suggests some keys to bridging contributions on national cases. A
guiding hypothesis is that the experience of diversity at home is the best preparation for
managing diversity in European politics. Pluralism, relativism and flexibility developed in
national interactions between religion and politics turn politicians into naturals in the Brussels
policy-game. The apprenticeship of diversity may result from various factors: from the
historical necessity to reconcile several denominations in domestic politics; from a founding
compromise between spiritual and temporal powers in the transition towards modernity,
democracy and nation-building; from a tradition of political pluralism legitimising the con-
tribution ofprivate interests (including religious ones) to governance and public will. All these
conditions permitting an easy shift from national conciliation to European bargaining can
supplement each other. Societies like Germany and the Netherlands which are used to
coexistence and compromises between different religious groups and where religion and
politics go well together are good laboratories for Europe. The UK with its formal intertwine-
ment between religious and political institutions offers a different configuration, but its
openness and political liberalism (illustrated by the role of interest representation) is also a
good preparation for what is in store for MEPs. Adaptation may bemore difficultfor countries
where either the church or the state are used to enjoying a dominant position and/or compete
with each other for social hegemony. Monopoly of influence or culture wars are not the right
practices to comply with the constant search for allies and compromises prevailing in the EP.
France has largely adapted its laïcitéto contemporary requirements for the management of
religious realities; but there is still a symbolic resilience of past conflicts between church and
state, and the articulation between religion and politics may still offer inflammable material
ready for controversies. French MEPs express this heritage through a certain rigidity in the
way they deal with religious issues. For opposite reasons, Polish MEPs may sometimes
struggle to get along well with what they perceive as a dominant and somehow authoritarian
secularism at the EP. Asserting a Catholic identity or coming to terms with secularisation seem
significantly more difficult in the EP than at the national level. Italian MEPs have had more
time to negotiate such an adaptation in domestic politics; nevertheless, the blueprint of
Catholicism on Italian political identity is visible in the reactivation of religious civil society
and in the number of Italians among the soldiers of Godat the EP. A last and transient
category includes countries which were once perceived as bastions of conservative religion
but which have experienced significant cultural changes with political effects (such as quick
secularisation, influx of migrants of different faiths, progressive legislation on sexual issues).
Of course, cultural changes can meet resistance and backlash. In such cases, Europeanisation
is a transformative process among others, not necessarily the most salient and influential and
convergent with societal evolutions. Austrian MEPs come from a country in this category;
Spanish MEPs are also influenced by similar tensions between rapid transformations at home
and the possible resilience of conservative forces. Such tensions may mean that religious
affairs are as delicate to deal with in politics at the European level as they are in politics at the
national level.
Finally, it is helpful to look at Europe from a distance in order to define what is
specific to Europe and what is not. The different casesin this study were chosen on
purpose to highlight contrasts and similarities. Israel is a fascinating example where
religion is constitutive of the very existence of the polity. It is also a territory where
several denominations and religiosities coexist. In contrast to Europe, Israel shows
culturalisation of religion and the potential for several narratives to take inspiration
Religion, State & Society 13
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from a same source for divergent purposes. It is a reminder of the plasticity of religion and
of the polysemy of all intellectual and symbolic traditions, and it is useful to keep this in
mind in debates on European heritages and original influences which are frequently
framed in terms of orrather than and. The USA is the inverted mirror of Europe: its
case has inspired a rich scholarship that has contributed much to the design of RelEP
methods. The contribution on American interactions between religion and politics sug-
gests that political institutions should not be expected to alter social realities radically, but
that they can constitute an environment influencing the ways of expressing and relating to
religion. Rules and balances of power do not change beliefs but may dictate arrangements
of politicians with these beliefs, simply because it is part of their jobs to think more in
terms of additions and coalitions than of divisions. So far from emphasising an irreducible
difference between religious America and secular Europe, a comparative study of religion
in the House of Representatives and in the European Parliament invites us to give credit to
representative democracy for the way it is able to bridge gaps of faith and belief and
contain conflicts while also giving space for the expression of dissent.
Funding
The RelEP project was funded with support from the European Commission through the Jean
Monnet Chair Social and Cultural Dimensions of European Integration, SocEUR [529183-LPP-
2012-BE-AJM-CH]. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission
cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.
RelEP has also benefited from the support of research grants from the Université Libre de Bruxelles
and the Belgian Fonds National de la Recherche Scientifique.
Notes
1. On the methodological advantages of the internet, see Farrell et al. (2006).
2. The present research was financed by a starting grant from the Université Libre de Bruxelles
and material support from this institution under diverse forms; funding by the Belgian scientific
agency FNRS for the final conference; support from the Jean Monnet Chair Social and Cultural
Dimensions of European Integration SocEUR; and considerable resources, time and energy
from all the contributors to this project. RelEP would not have been possible without this
human investment.
3. The list offered to MEPs in order to identity their most frequent interlocutors is taken from the
database of organisations registered at the EP and confirmed by exploratory interviews.
4. Questions are taken from European Values Study Survey 2008. (http://www.europeanvalues-
study.eu/evs/surveys/survey-2008.html) and from Special Eurobarometer 225: Social values,
Science & Technology (fieldwork January February 2005, publication June 2005), 7 (http://
ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_225_report_en.pdf).
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CONTENTS
EDITORIAL INTRODUCTION
Religion at the European Parliament: purposes, scope and limits of a survey on the religious beliefs
of MEPs
François Foret
Religion at the European Parliament: an overview
François Foret
SMOOTH TRANSITION FROM NATIONAL CONCILIATION TO EUROPEAN BARGAIN?
A social role for churches and cultural demarcation: how German MEPs represent religion in the
European Parliament
Anne Jenichen
Henrike Müller
A nation of vicars and merchants: religiosity and Dutch MEPs
Didier Caluwaerts
Pieter-Jan De Vlieger
Silvia Erzeel
Consulting and compromising: the (non-) religious policy preferences of British MEPs
Martin Steven
MASTER AT HOME, EMBATTLED IN BRUSSELS?
French MEPs and religion: Europeanising laïcité?
François Foret
Defenders of faith? Victims of secularisation? Polish politicians and religion in the European
Parliament
Magdalena Góra
Katarzyna Zielińska
Religion at the European Parliament: the Italian case
Stefano Braghiroli
Giulia Sandri
IN TRANSIT: FROM RELIGIOUS STRONGHOLD TO LIBERAL LABORATORY
Austrian MEPs: between privatisation and politicisation of religion
Julia Mourão Permoser
Politics and religion beyond state borders: the activity of Spanish MEPs on religious issues
Gloria Garcia-Romeral
Mar Griera
SO FAR, NOT SO DISSIMILAR: EUROPEAN EXCEPTIONALISMCHALLENGED BY
OTHER WESTERN CASES
Religion in the Israeli Parliament: a typology
Sharon Weinblum
16 F. Foret
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Religion in the American Congress: the case of the US House of Representatives, 1953-2003
James L. Guth
CONCLUSION
Conclusion
François Foret
Appendix
CORE QUESTIONNAIRE USED FOR THE SURVEY
RELIGION AT THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT(RelEP)
Dear Ms, Mr,
Member of the European Parliament
Religion is more and more on the agenda of the European Union. The EU is alternatively described
as a Christian club, or criticized for its materialism and atheism. Many hopes are placed in
European action to promote fundamental rights and religious freedom, but there are also questions
about the influence of religious or philosophical lobbies in Brussels and Strasbourg.
Little information is available on what happens at the European Parliament with religion. Most
studies focus on the European Commission. That is the reason why an international team of
researchers, specialists of parliamentary politics and religious issues, is conducting a major survey
on the religious preferences of members of the European Parliament. The purpose is to establish a
clear and objective picture of what the MEPs believe, and what they do with these beliefs.
The findings will contribute to the public debate on religion in European politics and will offer
dispassionate basis for policy reflection. Your contribution by answering these questions is irreplace-
able and it will take you only a few minutes.
The results of the survey will be used for scientific purpose only and will be published as global
statistics. More information on the project can be found here: http://www.releur.eu
Thank you very much for your time.
The RelEP team
Questionnaire Religion at the European Parliament
A/ Name of MP
B/ Nationality
C/ Age
D/ National Party
E/ Political Group at the European Parliament
1. Group of the European Peoples Party (Christian Democrats)
2. Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament
3. Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe
4. Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance
5. European Conservatives and Reformists
6. Confederal Group of the European United Left Nordic Green Left
7. Europe of freedom and democracy Group
8. Non-attached Members
Religion, State & Society 17
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F/ Number of terms
20092014
20042009
19992004
19941999
19891994
19891994
19841989
19791984
G/ Committees
1. Foreign Affairs
2. Development
3. International Trade
4. Budgets
5. Budgetary Control
6. Economic and Monetary Affairs
7. Employment and Social Affairs
8. Environment, Public Health and Food Safety
9. Industry, Research and Energy
10. Internal Market and Consumer Protection
11. Transport and Tourism
12. Regional Development
13. Agriculture and Rural Development
14. Fisheries
15. Culture and Education
16. Legal Affairs
17. Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs
18. Constitutional Affairs
19. Womens Rights and Gender Equality
20. Petitions
21. Human Rights
22. Security and Defence
23. Financial, Economic and Social Crisis
1/ According to you, does religion have an effect on the functioning of the
European Parliament?
a/ Yes
b/ No
2/ At the European Parliament, religion:
a/ reinforces the identity of each political group
b/ blurs the identity of each political group
c/ has no effect on the identity of each political group
3/ Does religion have a different importance depending on the nationality of the
European MPs?
a/ Yes
b/ No
18 F. Foret
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4/ Does religion create differences between MEPs who are Catholic, Protestant,
Orthodox or from other religions?
a/ Yes
b/ No
5/ As a MEP, do you ever take religion into account?
a/ Permanently
b/ Often
c/ Rarely
d/ Never
6/ If religion intervenes in your activity as MEP, is it:
a/ as a source of personal inspiration?
b/ as a social and political reality?
c/ as an interest group?
d/ other
e/ no effect
(several responses possible, please rank them from 13)
7/ Is the place of religion in the European Parliament different from your
experiences in national politics ?
a/ Yes
b/ No
c/ Dont know/Dont answer
8/ Has your experience at the European Parliament changed your views on the
relationships between religion and politics?
a/ Yes
b/ No
9/ How often are you in contact with religious or philosophical interest groups?
a/ once a week or more
b/ once a month or more
c/ a few times a year
d/ a few times over the course of a term
e/ never
f/ dont know/ no response
10/ If you are in contact with religious or philosophical interest groups, could you
provide some examples?
1. AEFJN AfricaEurope Faith & Justice Network
2. ATD QUART MONDE
3. BNAIBRITH Bnai Brith International
4. CARITAS
5. CCME Churchs Commission for Migrants in Europe
6. CDA Christian Democratic Appel
7. CEC KEK Conférence des Eglises Européennes
Religion, State & Society 19
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8. CEJI Centre Européen Juif dInformation
9. COMECE Commission des Episcopats de la Communauté Européenne
10. CSW Christian Solidarity Worldwide
11. EU CORD
12. EURODIACONIA European Federation of Diaconia
13. EUROJEWCONG European Jewish Congress
14. EUROPEANEA European Evangelical Alliance
15. ISLAMIC RELIEF Islamic Relief Worldwide
16. JRS Jesuit Refugee Service
17. LAÏCITE Centre dAction Laïque asbl
18. LIGHT FOR THE WORLD
19. OCIPE Office Catholique dInformation et dinitiative Pour lEurope
20. SPUC The society for the Protection of Unborn Children
21. SKM Slovenska Katolicka Misia
22. WYA World Youth Alliance
23. YAHAD IN UNUM
24. Other (please specify)
11/ Which are the issues on which religion is most important at the European
Parliament? (please rank the three first responses in order of importance)
a/ external relations
b/ freedom of expression
c/ the fight against discrimination
d/ social policy
e/ economic policy
f/ culture and education
g/ other
e/ Not any
12/ Should the EU have a real policy towards religions?
a/ Yes
b/ No
13/ Should the Lisbon Treaty have made reference to Europes Christian
heritage?
a/ Yes
b/ No
14/ Does religion play a role in the way Turkeys candidature was received in the
European Parliament?
a/ Yes
b/ No
15/ Does religion play a role in the external relations of the EU?
a/ Yes
b/ No
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16/ The President of the European Parliament regularly meets with representa-
tives of major European religion to discuss current affairs. Is it a good thing?
a/ Yes
b/ No
17/ Do you belong to a religious denomination?
a/ Yes
b/ No
18/ If yes, which one?
-> a/ Catholic
-> b/ Protestant
-> c/ Orthodox
-> d/ Other Christian
-> e/ Jew
-> f/ Muslim
-> g/ Sikh
-> h/ Buddhist
-> i/ Hindu
-> j/ Atheist
-> k/ Non believer/agnostic
-> l/ Other (please precise)
19/ Apart from weddings, funerals and christenings, about how often do you
attend religious services these days?
-> a/ never
-> b/ once a year
-> c/ holydays only
-> d/ once a month
-> e/ once a week
-> f/ more than once a week
-> g/ no answer
20/ Independently whether you go to Church or not, how would you define
yourself?
-> a/ I am a religious person
-> b/ I am not a religious person
-> c/ I am a convinced atheist
-> d/ dont know
-> e/ No answer
21/ Which of these statements comes closest to your beliefs (one answer only)?
-> a/ There is a personal God
-> b/ There is some sort of spirit or life force
-> c/ I dont believe there is any God, sort of spirit or life force
-> d/ dont know
-> e/ No answer
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22/ How much do you agree and disagree with each of the following?
23/ Do you have comments on this survey?
Thank you very much!
Agree
strongly Agree
Neither
agree nor
disagree Disagree
Disagree
strongly
Dont
know
No
answer
a/ Politicians who do not
believe in God are unfit for
public office
b/ Religious leaders should not
influence how people vote in
elections
c/ It would be better for Europe
if more people with strong
religious beliefs held public
office
d/Religious leaders should not
influence government
decisions
e/ If a nurse were asked to help
perform a legal abortion, he/
she should be allowed to
refuse on religious grounds
22 F. Foret
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... The EP is the most likely arena in which to do so, as a representative body reflecting the cultural and normative diversity of the EU. However, the EP remains tied to the usual constraints of EU politics: the need to search for large coalitions and to integrate parties with different ideological traditions, especially on moral issues (Foret, 2014). That is why disputes on ethical issues have been relatively scarce and episodic (Mondo, 2018). ...
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... From a macro perspective, one assesses the role of societies' confessional heritage in the adoption of restrictive/permissive morality policies, or the role of state-church relations' impact on morality policy variations. 1 From a cultural point of view, religion plays a role as a collective social universe rooted in heritage and intertwined with national identity (Foret 2014a). Scholars show that Catholic societies generally adopt more conservative morality policies than their Protestant counterparts (Fink 2008;1645;Minkenberg 2002, 236). ...
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The literature on morality politics is well-documented, but has mostly taken place at the national level. Yet, morality politics increasingly appears on the European Parliament’s agenda. Abortion has been tackled through parliamentary reports on sexual and reproductive health and rights; while human embryonic stem cell research has been dealt with through the successive European research framework programmes. Using semi-structured interviews with (former) MEPs, this research examines how the central actors involved in these parliamentary debates perceive and explain their vote on these issues. The analysis particularly focuses on the role of religion and values, and uncovers its effects at several levels: national culture, political affiliation and personal believing. In that regard, respondents emphasise the great degree of freedom that the European parliamentary arena offers to its members to express their personal values and convictions – and not exclusively on morality issues.
... Moreover, legislators communicate with religious leaders, lobbyists, and constituents who may reinforce connections between religious commitments and their activities in office. 2 The empirical record demonstrates a link between religion and legislative behavior. Although the study of religion and parliamentary behavior is less developed, recent studies find important, often indirect, effects of religion in Europe (Foret 2014a). In the US, religion is significantly related to the overall ideological cast of legislators' roll-call votes (Fastnow et al. 1999, Guth 2014). ...
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