Tuesday 6 May 2014

“The mindset in Europe is changing in favour of the family”

Full transcript of the interview with Maria Hildingsson, secretary-general of the Federation of Catholic Family Associations in Europe. Article (in Portuguese) here.

Transcrição integral, no inglês original, da entrevista a Maria Hildingsson, secretária-geral da Federação Europeia das Associações de Famílias Católicas. Ver aqui o artigo.

What brings you to Lisbon?
I have been invited to give a couple of conferences on the challenges to the Family, in Europe today. As is the situation in Portugal, it is in all member states of the European Union: Poverty, family breakdown situation we can see across Europe, and also the demographic deficit. All these things are challenges for the European decision makers, in Brussels, where I am based.

My visit here is an occasion to exchange with Portuguese organizations, associations and other actors working to promote more family friendly policies. Of course this is very important at the point where we are speaking. European elections take place in less than one month, and it is an excellent occasion and opportunity to make a change in European institutions.

Many citizens of EU countries tend to think that the EU Parliament does not affect our lives. That the things discussed there are not binding... So how important is it to avoid decisions that are against the family in the EU Parliament?
Well I would say it’s very important. What you just described is the situation we would find in any member state. There are 28 member states in the EU, and when you go to any of them, families and citizens in general feel that Brussels is something very far away, that decisions will not have a direct impact on their daily lives. But in fact, today, about 70% of national laws actually come from the European level. Since the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty, the European Parliament [EP] has more power than it used to have. The EP is in fact the only European institution that has a direct link to the European people. It is directly elected by the European citizens.

There are two other institutions: the EU Commission, which is influenced by the elections. The political denominations and composition of the EUP will have an impact on the commission of the European commission. And of course there is the European Council, which is a council of ministers, which directly reflects the national-political composition. But I do think it is important to underline how much power the EU actually has, although it can seem as if it is very far away, and very abstract.

To use a concrete example, we have heard of the Estrela Report. What would its approval have meant for families?
As you underlined, there are certain reports or resolutions which are adopted by the EP which are binding, and others which are non-binding. Mrs. Estrela's report was a non-binding report. But nevertheless it was important because it is a symbolic act. The EP did vote on a text, an alternative resolution, which states that all these subjects which she wanted to address are not to be dealt with at the EU level, but are the competence of member states. But if the text had been adopted, it would have given a clear position of the EP and even if not binding it is symbolically very important for the battle of ideas which we find at any political level.

Could your group be described as a lobbying group?
Yes. It’s a federation of family associations at the European level.

So you work directly with the European MP's. Is the European Parliament hostile to traditional families, or not?
I would say that there is a great variety. Among the 28 member states there are very different cultural, historical, social heritages that impact on the way we look at the family. In some countries politics will be based on an individualistic perspective, that is the case in my country, Sweden. In others we will see that there is family policy which is actually based on the family as a unit, which is the case in France.

But when we see all these different elected members at the EP, there are, in general, three different groups, which do not always reflect these national contexts. There is a group of members which does want to support the family, based on a marriage between a man and a woman. Another group is hostile to this idea and wants to promote another agenda, where any situation of family life, or any form of relationships are considered equal, not respecting the fact that any child has a mother and a father, and that marriage is an institution intended to protect children and the spouses.

But in between these groups there is a huge group, a majority, which is a group of members who never, perhaps, paid much attention to these issues. Of course no Member can cover all issues, therefore it is important to be in contact with this big group, which is quite willing to listen to arguments, and I do think that when arguments are put forward with common sense, but also using facts and figures, and looking at reality, there are many things we can promote and make present in the European debate.

Manifestação pró-família, em França
You spoke of marriage between a man and a woman. The gay marriage debate is going on all over Europe at the moment. Is that one of the main issues you are addressing? And what are the main threats you are trying to avoid coming out of Europe at the moment?
I would say that one of the main threats is family breakdown. That is a huge problem across Europe. It is a huge problem that does not reflect the desires of the hearts of young people in Europe. Young people want to have family, relationships that last a life time, and they respect adults who have been good parents and kept their families together.

So this is a huge challenge. The EU does not have any direct competence in the area of family policy as such, but it does have competence in the areas of employment policy, maternity leave, for example, and the balance between family life and work is very important. The current strategy of the EU, called the Europe 2020 strategy, wants to create jobs and of course that is very important, but there is no respect paid to the needs of families. Our belief is that you need to put family first. You need to design working conditions in such a way that each family can live decently from its income. It’s a matter of dignity as well.

Then there is this debate which is of a more anthropological character, which is the debate about same sex marriage, and adoption, and surrogacy motherhood, and on this issue I think it is very important to have a look at the map of Europe. If you look at it you will see there is a rift which is growing bigger and bigger, stronger and stronger. There are no member states from the former Warsaw Pact which have legislated in this way. All of the ones which have legislated to open marriage for people of the same sex, to open adoption rights to them as well, these countries have a different cultural mind-set.

Whether we are in Portugal or in Sweden we can see that all these countries are Western. In fact there have been some very big popular protests in countries such as Hungary, which changed its constitution a few years ago, where marriage and family are defined. Croatia, which managed to have a referendum, and we can see that these reactions do not come from the political level, every time, in some cases they do, but in fact it is a popular expression. And I think it is about time that the decision makers at the European level pay respect to those voices and that the richer countries, those of the Western part of the EU, stop putting pressure on those countries which need the financial support. Because this is what is happening. Sometimes there is true bullying.

You spoke of the protests in Hungary, we also saw demonstrations in France, which we don't usually think of as a traditionalist country... Are we seeing a change in the mind-set of a new generation in Western Europe?
I think so, yes. What happened in France is very interesting. I lived in France for 13 years and I can see that there is a change in the minds of people. This would not have happened five years ago, I think. It is a reaction that comes from the grassroots level. There is certainly a change in Europe in general, when it comes to these sensitive issues which concern human dignity, respect for life, respect for family. We can see in 2013 a magnificent example, with the collection of almost two million signatures in favour of the European Citizen's initiative "One of Us", which aims at asking the EU to stop any funding of activities which involve the destruction of the human embryo. The reactions at the political level can be rather strong on these issues, that is for certain, but the main actors here are not necessarily the politicians, it is normal people in the street who are actually starting to realize that they can make a change, they can have an impact.

In France we have seen mayors being fined or threatened with jail for refusing to conduct Gay Marriage. Cases in Britain of clashes between gay rights and freedom of conscience. What can we do to guarantee freedom of conscience for people for whom this is a serious issue? Can it be protected in any way?
Freedom of conscience, freedom of conviction, freedom of opinion, freedom of religion, all these are fundamental freedoms, they are enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights, in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. I think it is important to make people aware of these rights and to strengthen those rights.

Of course there is, in this case, a clash of rights. If the legislator has given the right for people to marry with others of the same sex, and on the other hand the civil servant who is to carry out the ceremony has another opinion, we do see that there is a clash of rights. We do need to reflect on this, we do need to see how we can reach out to each person so that no one feels that they are not respected. Everyone is worthy of respect. But those individual wishes, which lead to a situation where a single person could have an insemination, where a couple could have a surrogate mother to give birth to a child, these situations do not fully respect the needs of every person. We cannot act from an individualistic perspective; we need to search for the common good.

But you put your finger on one of the main challenges we have ahead, and this also relates to the concept of non-discrimination, which is creating quite some difficulties.

We see many of the people on the other side comparing opposition to gay rights to racism. Is this a solid argument?
I don't think it is. What we need is to understand what marriage is really about. Until now the law has never been based on feelings and emotions. The law that has instituted marriage is there to protect the spouses and the children. Marriage is an institution. Of course there is love, there are emotions, but the state and society, when they create rules, they are there to protect and institution intended to protect the spouses and the children. This is what marriage is about, it is not about the romantic ceremony, the church, or whatever.

We do need to come back to what marriage is really about. We need to value that, but also to understand the needs of young people who want to have stable relationships. One of the main challenges here is education. We should not replace parents in their educational role, they are the first and primary educators of their children. But we should support them. And we also need to develop alternatives, propose and offer ways to support parents in this mission. One of the most sensitive areas relates to sexuality and relationships, but what is commonly proposed in many schools is a more biological, sometimes scientific, or health oriented education, but what youth is really looking for is how to make a relationship last. We need to widen the perspective and make sure we offer education that prepares to love, respect, cherish, forgive, and that takes into account relationships, emotions and sexuality. This is one of the major challenges in Europe, but also in the world today.

You were saying before the interview that the Lutheran Church in Sweden is currently led by a female lesbian bishop who lives with another woman and has adopted children... So I imagine that for many of these established churches in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, you don't necessarily get much support. But I would ask if you count on Muslim and Jewish communities as allies in some of these matters?
There are many Christian churches with which we have common ideas, values and virtues. We cannot put all the Protestants into one bag, and I think we can also get a lot of support from the Orthodox. When it comes to the Jewish community I think we have many things in common, related to family and marriage. To a certain extent that can also be the case with the Muslim community, but of course we do have a different view on women, and also on marriage as such. So on certain things we can work on the political level together, there are perhaps other anthropological aspects where we would have different views.

But in those where there is common ground, do you work together?
We do, but I would say that what I see in Brussels, at least, is that the most active NGO's working on these issues are Christian.

Mainly Catholic and Evangelical?

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