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Sweep out religious superstition which will not tolerate me

Matthew Parris

The new President of the European Commission says: “We have Christians and Roman Catholics working for Europe. We have agnostics and atheists and all levels of different religions, Christian and non-Christian. This tolerance is a wonderful thing and we should show the same level of tolerance for people’s opinions.” José Manuel Durão Barroso was arguing for the forgiveness of Justice Commissioner-designate, Rocco Buttiglione.
I say otherwise. I say: enough of tolerance. I do not tolerate religious superstition, not when it refuses to tolerate me. Sweep it from the corridors of power. I do not pay my taxes for a Europe which can “tolerate” a hardline Italian mate of Silvio Berlusconi and the Pope who takes to his job as Justice Commissioner the belief that tens of millions of Europeans such as me are sinners because we are gay, or that single mothers are “not very good” — or who adds that women should spend less time working and more time having babies.

Kick him out. This the European Parliament can do by rejecting the proposed new Commission in its entirety — the only power available to it.

Senhor Barroso said: “Is it reasonable to make a commission fall because two or three commissioners aren’t satisfactory? No. One must keep a sense of balance.”

I say: yes, entirely reasonable. If one of your candidate commissioners had declared publicly that he despised Jews or thought blacks inferior, then would you honestly think that a commission — any commission — which included such a man as “Justice and Freedom” Commissioner, was acceptable? Of course not.

It is time for the European Parliament to call the bluff of the Commission and the member states. If the Parliament had the power to veto individual candidates, Signor Buttiglione would be out already. But instead the European Parliament is permitted only the nuclear option — the whole proposed Commission, or nothing. All member states are complicit in this arrangement, and from the point of view of those who want to sideline the Parliament, it is shrewd: like telling the restaurant diner who complains of a fly in his soup that he is welcome to send the dish back, but in that case the whole order — entrée, pudding, cheese, coffee and both the wines — must be cancelled, and the table rebooked for later. Any arrangement which denies the complainant the right to distinguish between what is and what is not acceptable to him and offers him only one option — to call the whole thing off — is a recipe for climbdown. That is the intention: to embarrass the Parliament into nodding every new commission through, for fear of plunging the EU into crisis.

The Parliament should decline to be embarrassed. It should plunge the EU into crisis.

Senhor Barroso’s suggested compromise is not enough. The new President has proposed that civil liberties and human rights would no longer be left to Signor Buttiglione alone, but would be overseen by a panel including the errant Buttiglione, and chaired by Senhor Barroso himself.

This is ludicrous. “Civil liberties, human rights and immigration” is the broadest of territories. Signor Buttiglione’s failure to separate his private from his public attitudes poisons his competence as an adjudicator within the whole field. If in his declared judgment as a devout Roman Catholic gays are sinners and single mothers are not very good, and women should be breeding, what does he say about abortion? Divorce? Contraception? The immigration rights of same-sex partners? The status for immigration purposes of second marriages? How does he view his own fellow commissioner, Peter Mandelson? The human rights of the abortion-seeker versus those of the unborn child? The rights of women in the workplace? This man will be popping in and out of meetings like a yo-yo, to drag in the President and his supervisory panel.

How can Signor Buttiglione command respect as Justice Commissioner if he has been offered his responsibilities on the understanding that he is not fit to exercise many of them cannot be left alone with them, and needs some sort of chaperone every time he deals with them? It would be like allowing a wife-beating judge to sit in judgment on domestic violence cases, but only as part of a panel. Bad apples such as Signor Buttiglione are not to be dealt with by “balancing” them with better apples or by making sure somebody supervises the barrel. There are times when a little intransigence is called for; and this is one of them.

It does appear that the Parliament may this time — and at last — be prepared to stand its ground. The Socialist grouping sounds adamant. So are the Greens. Chris Davies, the leader of the British Liberal Democrats, says: “Our position has hardened — it’s one of those occasions that the Parliament has to use the powers at its disposal as a point of principle, and to set a precedent for the future.”

Those unskilled in the ways of the EU institutions who, like me, blunder into this debate as though it were all about ethics, are no doubt missing several points. The row should be understood (a friendly MEP tells me) “as a classic EU inter-institutional wrangle”. He adds that there’s a good deal of unsavoury party-political jockeying going on too, plus a simmering vendetta between Martin Schulz, the German Socialist Group leader in the Parliament, and Silvio Berlusconi, who last year compared Herr Schulz with a Nazi concentration camp guard. Stir in with that the Vatican’s continuing pique that it failed to get God imported into the draft European constitution, and you have the makings (my MEP friend suggests) of a bar-room scrap as well as a pitched ethical and constitutional battle.

But the ethical and constitutional battles matter. We really must decide what role we want the Parliament to have in the choice of a commission. The nuclear option is a cop-out and MEPs are right to want to bring this to a head by calling the bluff. Perhaps we do not think the Parliament should have any oversight over a commission effectively nominated by the governments of member states; then we should take away the bizarre power the Parliament now has. Perhaps we do want to give it oversight; then we should make that power more realistically exercisable.

Whatever view one takes, there is unlikely to be a better test case than this. Signor Buttiglione is plainly unfit for the post for which he is candidate. It is arguable that a candidate sufficiently self-aware, intelligently conscious of the difference between private opinion and public duty, and painstaking enough to guard his tongue, should not be discriminated against on the ground of his presumed personal beliefs. I know the retiring commissioner, Chris Patten, quite well. I have never detected that he bears the least personal animus against gays. But Chris is a serious Catholic and I have often wondered . . . He leaves us to wonder; that is his strength. Signor Buttiglione did not; that is his weakness.

It was more than a failure of discretion; it was an unwillingness to respect a distinction. That unwillingness disqualified him absolutely. His subsequent apology — “words so emotionally charged as ‘sin’ should perhaps not be introduced in the political debate” — compounded the impression of a tangled mind. It was not the word, it was the idea; it was not its inclusion in “the debate”, it was its presence in a would-be commissioner’ s thinking. It was not “perhaps”; it was obviously.

Signor Buttiglione claims that he has been the victim of anti-Christian discrimination. This brings us to the ethical battle. I shall take sides, no doubt demonstrating my own unfitness for the role of Justice Commissioner. I think Signor Buttiglione has indeed been the the victim of anti-Christian discrimination, and that such discrimination is now in order. By “discrimination” I do not mean “disqualification”, I mean “subject to special scrutiny”.

There are Christians and Christians, as there are Muslims and Muslims, Jews and Jews, Hindus and Hindus. But well within the mainstreams of all four faiths are to be found core beliefs which now lie right outside the mainstream of modern European thought. Let me mention a few. Catholic, evangelical Christian, Orthodox Judaic and Muslim teaching on homosexuality and divorce; much Muslim practice as to the status of women; some Hindu teaching on caste; and Catholic teaching on contraception and abortion are unacceptable and insulting, not only to me but also to the majority of Europeans, and the overwhelming majority of educated Europeans. I do not shrink from according special status to the educated, for they lead thought.

That such faith-based beliefs run counter to modern European notions of justice and equality should not disqualify their followers from jobs such as those of Justice (and anti-discrimination) Commissioner, any more than a committed vegetarian should be disqualified from a job in a slaughterhouse. But we would want to be convinced that the vegetarian could keep his private beliefs and his professional duties apart; and we must likewise demand that followers of anti-modern faiths do not let their beliefs affect the discharge of their duties. That these faiths demand of their followers the opposite is a matter for their followers.