A conservative setback

Print edition : December 03, 2004

E.U. leaders before the signing of the new European Constitution at the Orazi and Curiazi Hall in Capitol Place, Rome. - GIULIO NAPOLITANO/AFP

The new European Commission President withdraws his team of Commissioners as the nomination of a few controversial persons, especially the ultra-conservative Rocco Buttiglione, throws up a crisis.

THE averting of an institutional crisis in the European Union (E.U.) went almost unnoticed at a time when world attention was mostly focussed on the presidential election in the United States. The near-crisis situation was caused by a confrontation between the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, and the incoming President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, over Barroso's proposed new team of Commissioners. Members of the European Parliament had threatened to veto the entire 25-member Commission unless Barroso made some specific changes to it. With the prospects of a majority approval appearing increasingly difficult, the new President withdrew his team of Commissioners just an hour before the European Parliament was due to vote.

The E.C. is the executive arm of the E.U. It is also the only body that can propose legislation, which is then either passed or rejected by the European Parliament, jointly with the Council of Ministers, which represents the member-nations' governments. Each Commissioner is in charge of a policy area such as justice, agriculture or environment. The decision to nominate or reject individual Commissioners is taken by the 25 member-governments in consultation with the Commission President. The European Parliament can only reject a proposed Commission as a whole and cannot veto individual candidates. This complex distribution of powers has been set out in the European Constitution, which was signed by E.U. leaders at a ceremony in Rome on October 29 soon after the E.C. President postponed the parliamentary vote on his Commission. The E.U. Constitution will now go through the process of ratification by individual member-states - either through referendum or parliamentary vote - before it comes into effect.

The problem with Barroso's team, above all, related to Italy's nominee to the E.C., Rocco Buttiglione, and his recent remarks on homosexuality and women. Buttiglione had told a European parliamentary committee hearing on his confirmation to the post that he considered homosexuality to be a "sin" and that marriage existed to allow women to have children and to be protected by their husbands. The Civil Liberties Committee promptly voted against him. Barroso, however, persisted with the nomination of Buttiglione as Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security, provoking substantial opposition among E.U. Parliament deputies. Socialist, Liberal Democrat and Green Party leaders in the E.U. Parliament called for a change in Buttiglione's portfolio. Barroso at first offered to take away Buttiglione's responsibility for Civil Liberties, and then presented an alternative compromise of appointing a shadow team of commissioners to monitor Buttiglione's performance since the post involves supervision of discrimination issues. He also offered to set up a new European agency for human rights and launch a plan to combat discrimination. By voting day, however, Barroso could only be sure of the support of the conservative and Christian Democrat formations in the 735-member European Parliament. The Popular Party, which is the largest single bloc with 268 members, stood firmly behind Barroso, who led a Centre-Right government in Portugal before being nominated to succeed Italian Romano Prodi as the President of the E.C.

What counted more against Buttiglione was his expression of personal belief in a context related to the holding of public office. Socialist deputies, 200 in numerical strength and the second largest group, threatened to vote en bloc against the Commission if Buttiglione's portfolio was not changed. Buttiglione, a Christian Democrat politician, is a devout Roman Catholic and is the Minister for European Affairs in the Italian government led by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. He was among the founders of the ultra-conservative movement Communione e Liberazione, founded in the late 1960s to campaign against the increasing secularisation of society in Italy and in the rest of Europe. Buttiglione is also close to Pope John Paul II, on whom he has written a book.

The incoming E.C. President had little room for manoeuvre given that the Italian Centre-Right government had nominated only one candidate from Italy. Barroso ran the additional risk of not having his new Commission in place before the end of the term of the current Commission. Parliamentarians also had misgivings about the candidature of some other Commissioners. Nellie Kroes, the Dutch nominee for the Competition portfolio, faced opposition on account of possible conflict of interest arising from her past career in business. Among the other candidates, former Hungarian Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs had shown insufficient knowledge about his designated Energy portfolio (he was later moved to the Taxation and Customs portfolio), while former Latvian parliamentary Speaker Ingrida Udre, who was the Commissioner-designate for Taxation, failed to provide sufficient clarification about past allegations against her of financial irregularities (former Latvian Finance Minister Andris Piebalgs, who replaced her, was made Commissioner for Energy).

Rocco Buttiglione.-GREGORIO BORGIA/AP

In the end, Barroso postponed taking the vote, saying that he would consult parliamentary and E.U. leaders before proposing a new list of Commissioners. Thereafter, consultations on the sidelines of the ceremony in Rome for signing the European Constitution resulted in the nomination of Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini as the candidate in place of Buttiglione. Buttiglione sent a letter to Barroso apologising for the problems and said that he had in no way intended to offend anybody's feelings.

Barroso told the European Parliament that he was withdrawing his team of Commissioners because he felt that the efforts to have the team approved would not be a positive feature either for European institutions or for the "European project". The Parliament's President, Joseph Borrell, said it was not a conflict between institutions but a normal feature of politics.

The European Parliament's powers have been strengthened over the years, though it has only once forced the resignation of a Commission (the E.C. led by Jacques Santer, in 1999). The Buttiglione episode now is seen as marking a decisive victory for it. European commentators noted that Parliament had discharged its rightful role in the European democratic process. Eugenio Scalfari, the founder and former editor of the Italian mass circulation daily La Repubblica, wrote in the daily that the Buttiglione case represented the affirmation of the European Parliament vis-a-vis member-states' governments and as such "represents an important signpost in the desirable evolution towards a federal Europe". He added that Parliament in Strasbourg was "no longer simply a consultative body" but " a political entity vested with effective powers".

THE Vatican was quick to react to the Buttiglione episode. Cardinal Renato Martino, the head of the Vatican Council for Justice and Peace, in an interview with Reuters news agency described it as a "new inquisition" and " new anti-Catholicism". Pope John Paul II, at a meeting with Romano Prodi, called for a resolution of the crisis by "reciprocal respect in a spirit of goodwill".

As the Italian representative to the convention that drew up the E.U. Constitution, Buttiglione was a strong advocate of a reference to Christianity in the Constitution Treaty. The Constitution signed by E.U. leaders in Rome does not mention the "Christian roots" of Europe, signalling a major failure for the Vatican's efforts in this direction. Pope John Paul II had declared in 2002: "Europe cannot deny its Christian heritage since a great part of its achievements in the fields of law, art, literature and philosophy have been influenced by the evangelical message." The strongest call to recognise the Christian roots of Europe has come from four predominantly Catholic countries - Ireland, Italy, Poland and Spain. The campaign has been articulated in Europe through the political Centre-Right by parties like the Christian Democrats in Germany and the Popular Party at the European level. On the other hand, there have also been strong assertions in favour of secularism and a separation between the Church and the state, as in France, which has banned the display of religious symbols in state educational institutions. The Vatican's positions on issues such as abortion, contraception and stem cell research have been the subject of widespread scrutiny and debate. The Buttiglione episode has unfolded in a context of increasing secularisation in Europe that is reflected in the declining percentage of Christians and the meagre attendance in churches.

THE religious Right in the U.S. is in the throes of a very different experience. President George W. Bush's victory in the election is also a result of his successful mobilisation of the evangelicals and also the conservative Catholic population in the U.S. Bush reached out to the Republican Party's core support base through a campaign described as "faith-based", where the conservative line on issues such as abortion and gay marriages was reiterated. At campaign rallies, Bush portrayed himself as standing on the side of "God", and it is the conservative "God-fearing" America that tipped the electoral scales in his favour. The Bush campaign is said to have "energised" the evangelical population and Republican supporters, who otherwise do not care much about voting. Evangelical churches and Republican activists played a major role in bringing out Bush supporters to the polling booths.

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