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13 June 2016

The EU and the issues that matter to you

We looked at issues evangelicals are concerned about and asked our friends at the Religious Liberty Commission, CARE, the Alliance in Scotland and the Alliance in Northern Ireland for some answers.


The European Union declares that "one of the EU's main goals is to promote human rights both internally and around the world." But how does the EU go about specifically promoting and protecting the global right to freedom of religion or belief? 

The right to freedom of religion or belief was officially enshrined in the EU's consciousness through the adoption of the EU's guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief. These guidelines were adopted in 2013 after extensive consultation with NGOs, including RLC members. They are non-binding, but all member states agreed to them and they hold an authoritative position within the EU. They commit to promoting and protecting the right to freedom of religion or belief in the EU's foreign policy (through the European External Action Service – the EU's equivalent to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office). Member states also committed to bringing the guidelines into their own foreign policy.

The guidelines are still relatively new. However, there has been a marked increase in both personal and official awareness of the importance of the right to freedom of religion or belief within the EU corridors.

Such an awareness is a crucial foundation for accurate policy on this issue. 

The EU's main influence in this area is through its diplomatic reach, both internally and externally. Internally, member states – and their citizens – can influence the EU and challenge it to more proactively raise religious freedom in its foreign policy. The EU can, in turn, raise concerns with member states who give little attention to freedom of religion or belief. 

Externally, the EU's position as a united trading block and significant global humanitarian donor allows it to gain access to – and set up delegations in – a whole variety of countries.

These delegations – like embassies – enable the EU to observe and report on the human rights situation in many countries. This role is particularly helpful for EU states who want to influence a specific situation but, don't have an in-country embassy through which to do it. Through the delegations, the EU can provide a strong and unified voice, bringing the combined weight of all member states to bear when exerting pressure on situations of human rights abuse. Member states' embassies can also put forward the united EU messaging, meaning that host nations should hear the same line from multiple sources – thereby making a greater impact than if only one country's embassy spoke out alone.

Yet there remains the ongoing question for both the EU and member states of how to balance trade interests and human rights concerns – with trade often getting the upper hand. For instance, both the EU and UK are considerably strengthening relations with Kazakhstan and India without seriously addressing issues of religious persecution. The existence of an EU policy means that advocates for freedom of religion or belief are able to influence policy in both the EU and member states in order to advance religious freedom. This is something that RLC members and individual Christians engage with in both Westminster and Brussels, thanks to the prayers and support of people like you.

Religious Liberty Commission (Evangelical Alliance, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Open Doors UK and Release International). 

Human trafficking is an issue that matters to Christians because we want to see the dignity of every individual respected. Although there are many cases of British people being trafficked and exploited within our own country, human trafficking has a significant international dimension. But what impact the EU had on combatting the traffickers? And how might leaving affect the fight against modern day slavery? 

Unquestionably, the EU Human Trafficking Directive of 2011 has helped to shape and influence the fight against human trafficking. This directive provided greater force and emphasis on the need for proactive action to tackle the human traffickers and provide support to victims. This directive helped prompt Lord Morrow to look at ways of tackling human trafficking in Northern Ireland, resulting in the groundbreaking trafficking act passed there in 2015. There are also echoes of the directive in the new legislation passed in Scotland and England and Wales the same year. Having said this, because the new legislation was passed by our own parliaments and assemblies, it's not dependent on EU membership, and would remain in force if we left the EU.

Membership of the EU means member states can easily share advice on best practice in tackling trafficking. It also means we can make use of structures such as Europol, which enable sharing of intelligence and joint operations in specific cases. This cooperation with fellow EU member states and communications plays a vital role in helping us combat human trafficking. However, we also co-operate with countries beyond the EU and there is no reason this broader, international co-operation would cease if we left the EU. 

Thirdly and finally, immigration is obviously a key issue in the debate about EU membership. Many of the victims of human trafficking in the UK come from the EU. Because you don't need a visa to enter the UK, this makes it easier for traffickers to entice victims with promises of work only to put them into forced labour or sexual exploitation. Leaving the EU could allow stronger border controls, which could act as a deterrent to the traffickers. On the other hand, we know that other victims are already being brought to the UK from countries outside the EU, sometimes with a valid visa, sometimes without, so there is no guarantee that ending visa-free travel from the EU would prevent trafficking.

Pray that whatever the outcome, God would continue to empower people to make a real Christian difference by standing alongside victims of trafficking and giving them with the support they need. 

CARE policy team.

The referendum, along with all political issues in Scotland, has to be seen in the context of the ongoing discussions about Scotland's future place in the UK. It's fair to say that while the main party leaders are in favour of staying in the EU and with the Scottish election campaign now in full swing ahead of May's Holyrood elections, there's also not been much of a debate to speak of as yet.

Common wisdom is that Scots are much more favourable to membership of the EU than people in the UK as a whole. This would seem to be backed up by some of the latest polling that puts Scottish voting intentions at around 65 per cent for remain to 35 per cent for leave, rather than a much more even split across the UK as a whole. Certainly the main drivers for the Brexit campaign don't have as much day-to-day impact up here. Nigel Farage and UKIP have had limited impact in Scotland with working class antiestablishment political sentiment focusing on Westminster rather than Europe.

On the specific issues, migration is lower than the rest of the UK and more importantly Scotland is emptier, meaning that immigration doesn't have such negative connotations. In fact, arguably the opposite is the case with Scottish public services needing migration to help stem demographic changes. Concerns about EU powers usurping national sovereignty also have less impact as Scots are used to finding their self-identity as part of the larger UK family. This is not to mention the fact that large areas of Scotland – especially the  Highlands and Islands – have also benefited disproportionately well from EU funding subsidies.

There are limited voices for the third of the Scots who favour leaving the EU and this is causing the debate to be stifled somewhat. However figures are now starting to emerge from left and right, and unionist and nationalist perspectives, which is starting to challenge the political consensus that exists. Finally, there is the ever present reality of Scotland's future and in particular the impact of a Brexit if Scots were to vote to remain. The Scottish government has made no secret of the fact that it would like to use this scenario to push for a second independence referendum and if this were to happen it is possible (though no means certain) that the question 'Scottish, British or European?' could become a significant consideration in Scotland and across the UK.

Evangelical Alliance Scotland public policy team.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK to have a land-border with another country in the EU. With so much talk about control of borders, this land border with the Republic of Ireland is critical to the debate yet not talked about much in mainstream UK debate on the referendum. 

The other unique thing is the peace process here, which is guaranteed by the Irish and British governments and is contingent on the principle of self-determination. If the UK were to leave the EU there may be implications – constitutional or otherwise – for the peace process. Materially, Northern Ireland has also benefited greatly from specific peace funding from the EU.

Northern Ireland has a large rural economy with many jobs dependant on farming and fishing – perhaps disproportionately so compared to the rest of the UK given the small population. Policies on these issues are largely determined at EU level and so are important here.

On a point of interest, Martin McGuiness has called for a referendum in Northern Ireland on Irish unity if the UK were to leave the EU. This goes right to the heart of the constitution of Northern Ireland as per the Good Friday Agreement. We find ourselves in the strange position here with Sinn Féin agreeing with the constitutional solution proposed by the British prime minister and the DUP disagreeing with him.

Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland public policy team.

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