We need to know before we vote on Europe’s new constitution. This makes the controversy over Rocco Buttiglione’s appointment as EU Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security more serious than the run-of-the-mill squabbles that often arise in European politics. More grave, even, than the row that led to the fall of Jacques Santer’s Commission in 1999.
The affair presents the EU with an important moral test.
Is it to be a genuinely pluralist community of nations, where different values can co-exist in harmony and where basic rights such as freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom of belief are defended? Or will the new Union of 25 be a place where human rights are only defended when they do not conflict with the needs of the free market or other prevailing ideologies? Where to think differently may not cost you your life, but will certainly damage your political career?
Rocco Buttiglione is an unlikely icon of free expression. He’s a middle-aged philosopher and a professor. He’s close to Pope John Paul II - both personally and in his thinking on social issues. When he appeared before the parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee for vetting last week, he discovered just how dangerous such thinking can be for a politician with ambition.
Buttiglione championed the role of women as homemakers before the European Parliament committee and worried that “too few children are being born in Europe”.
Even more controversially, he drew a careful distinction between his moral perspective on homosexuality (as a Catholic, he believes homosexual acts are immoral) and his political responsibilities as Commissioner-designate.
“Many things may be considered immoral which should not be prohibited,” he argued. “The State has no right to stick its nose into these things and nobody can be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation ... this stands in the Charter of Human Rights, this stands in the Constitution and I have pledged to defend this Constitution.”
It was a distinction worthy of St Thomas More - Buttiglione was staying true to his conscience but doing everything he could to save his neck.
His inquisitors should have been happy with the reassurance that he would uphold European law. But anyone familiar with the high priests of liberalism won’t be surprised that they were not. The new totalitarians want to control people’s minds as well; to crush any dissent over their moral consensus.
The inquisitors include such champions of civil liberties as Sinn Féin MEP Mary Lou McDonald, who wants somebody more “progressive and open-minded”.
It would be good if some other Irish MEP, perhaps from a party more used to democratic ways, reminded such civil libertarians that the progressive and open-minded thing is to allow the expression of diverse views - not just privately, but in the corridors of power.
The professor’s problem is not that he thinks homosexual acts are immoral. Lots of people do. It’s a credible moral position, it’s intellectually defensible and it doesn’t imply any desire to discriminate against homosexual people.
Buttiglione is dangerous because he believes in freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. Only this week in the morally confused EU, we saw the Commission sack a whistleblower who exposed corruption. And at the European Court of First Instance we see a German journalist being hounded for exposing corruption in European institutions.
The International Federation of Journalists has accused senior officials of the European Union and Belgian justice authorities of a “cowardly, spiteful and unjust” campaign against the reporter. That the Civil Liberties committee of the European Parliament should be more worked up about Buttiglione’s moral views than about the fate of the whistleblowers tells us all we need to know about the calibre of these people.
How ironic it is, too, that Buttiglione’s values should be seen as out of step with the EU’s sense of itself.
The European Community was conceived to prevent totalitarianism and conflict. Many of the founding fathers - Schumann, De Gasperi and Adenauer - were devout Christians who dreamed of a community of nations, interdependent through trade, which would respect the diversity of its people.
THE European project has gone badly astray when MEPs on a civil liberties committee can’t recognise a person’s right to take a different moral view. The problem is, these MEPs see freedom solely in terms of economic or sexual freedom or simply as the liberty to consume things.
Their ideology is useful up to a point: It guarantees equality of treatment in the workplace, equal pay, and freedom from certain types of discrimination. But it doesn’t, in the end, respect human beings.
Consider the contrasting attitudes of EU Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin to animal experiments and to human embryo research. Busquin has committed the EU to reducing animal testing, which is laudable enough.
Incredibly though, this Commissioner welcomes “the use of human cell cultures, including embryonic stem cells” as a way of developing alternatives to animal testing.
Interestingly, Rocco Buttiglione’s definition of freedom would prevent such amoral nonsense.
“Truth and love are the measure of freedom,” he says. In other words, freedom is to be cherished but it’s not the highest value. Doing the right thing is what ultimately matters. Believing in the ‘right’ thing, as distinct from blindly chanting the EU’s list of permitted freedoms, is enough to earn you the label ‘conservative’ or ‘controversial’ these days.
How interesting it is that the MEPs of the European Parliament were charmed and coaxed by Charlie McCreevy, a man not known for having many ideas outside of economic and sporting matters. But the MEPs want to scratch the eyes of an idealistic politician with serious ideas about the advancement of human dignity and freedom.
What’s more, these are the very politicians who would criticise George W Bush for his ‘you’re either with me or you’re against me’ approach to politics. Let them never open their mouths again if they shaft Buttiglione.
History reminds us of another occasion when a supposedly enlightened political system tried to crush a moral man. Socrates, the great philosopher of ancient Greece, was executed for supposedly rejecting the old gods. What was really at issue, however, was the philosopher’s refusal to accept or endorse judicial killing being carried out by Athenian leaders. His conscience told him it was wrong. Socrates preferred to lose his life than be overtaken by corruption in his old age.
The philosopher Buttiglione will not lose his head or be forced to take hemlock because of his views. But it is not yet clear if he can hold on to his job. Like Socrates and Thomas More, he refuses to abandon conscience for the sake of political ambition.
“I think it is better for the European Parliament and for Europe to have a man of conscience,” he told the BBC.
“But if I should be discriminated against because I am a Catholic, I prefer to remain a Catholic.”
In a world where politicians are constantly seen to cave in to self-interest, isn’t that a quality to be admired? Couldn’t the EU do with someone like Rocco Buttiglione?