The problems of marrying European unity with European diversity

The case of Rocco Buttiglione, the controversial Italian candidate for Commissioner (for judicial matters, among them human rights) in the important EU Commission, brings up a spectrum of interesting and crucial aspects of pan-European politics.

    That Rocco Buttiglione seems unfit for this European Union office, is obvious to most Europeans. He sees homosexuality, contraception and abortion as sins, he takes a grim, almost sadistic view of non-European refugees, he regards single mothers as unfit for raising children, etc, etc. On top of all his fundamentalist prejudices he is embarrassingly ill-informed. Buttiglione has recently insinuated that Vladimir Spidla, the Czech candidate for the new EU Commission, is an ex-communist whose allegiance to democracy is doubtful. In fact Spidla has always been a respected democrat and an anti-communist dissident.

Parliament, Commission, and Council of Ministers

    No, the question is not whether Buttiglione is fit for EU office (which he obviously isn’t). The question is rather more complicated. The background is as follows:

    1. The EU Commission consist of individuals appointed by each of the EU member states (and approved by the European Parliament). Once confirmed, the members of the Commission are supposed to act as “pan-Europeans”, representing pan-European interests only, and not the interests of their native countries. Every EU member state can appoint at least one Commissioner, more populous countries several, all according to a set scheme.

      The EU Parliament can approve or reject a given set of Commissioners, but only in its entirety. So even if a majority of the EU parliament disapproves of Buttiglione, they can’t get rid of him alone -- all of the other Commissioner candidates would then be rejected at the same time.

    2. The EU Commission (to be approved or rejected in its entirety by the European Parliament) is the EU organ that has the right and responsibility to propose new pan-European laws.

      Just ”proposing” might not seem as much of a power. But it is, because the EU Commission has the entire EU expert bureaucracy and statistical machinery at its disposal when preparing its proposals. No single European government has a comparable overall view of any pan-European question.

    3. The decision to turn a proposal from the Commission into pan-European law rests with the EU Council of Ministers. Here the word ”the” is a bit misplaced, because there are actually as many EU “Councils of Ministers” as there are EU issues. Because in e.g. matters of foreign policy the Council of Ministers consists of all the foreign ministers of the EU member states, in matters of agriculture of all the ministers of agriculture, in matters of communication of all communication ministers, etc.

      In short, the issue-specific ministers of the member states (who are in their turn appointed by the majority of their democratically elected Parliaments) are the one’s who finally enact (or reject) new EU laws, as proposed by the EU Commission.

No problem, just a plethora of problems

    No problem, you might say -- let’s reject the entire Commission, dispatch Buttiglione back to his home-town fundamentalists, and let the member states appoint new candidates for the EU Commission. Yes, but this raises a number of sensitive questions.

    One is that it would take months and throw the entire cumbersome EU procedure into disarray. It might even demonstrate to Eurosceptics that the EU is a fragile, ineffective colossus. Nobody wants to do that.

Far from the US

    Remember that the EU bears no resemblance to the United States of America, nor will it ever in the future look anything even faintly resembling the US. For one thing, there is no common language. On the contrary, every European nation is proud of continuing to speak its native tongue, even in official EU dealings (giving the daily bread to armies of interpreters and translators in Brussels). And it’s not only the language -- every European nation is determined to preserve its unique culture, customs, diet and traditions.

    Rightly so. The EU may officially be called a Union, but what every European citizen actually wants the EU to be, is a tightly knit commonwealth of closely cooperating, but forever diverse European nations. That this tightrope act is possible constitutes the very essence of the proud ideals of the European Union.

Is it legitimate to question your brother’s legitimacy?

    The second question, which the sending of the entire new European Commission back to the drawing board would prompt, is one of legitimacy. Because every European member nation has, via its democratically elected government, appointed the candidates it deems most worthy of membership in the EU Commission. Some of these are leftists, others may be middle-of-the-roaders or rightists, some are environmentalists, others experts in industrial development. In general, every nation sends to Brussels the particular individuals that its government sees as best suited for the common task.

When are anomalies acceptable?

    In certain cases a somewhat anomalous government might be elected in a EU member country, like Berlusconi’s government in Italy today. But whatever non-Italians like me might say about this particular anomaly, the Berlusconi government was unquestionably democratically elected. Berlusconi’s dominating ownership of Italian media may raise some eyebrows, but there are certainly no formal objections to the fact that his government was elected by the Italian people.

    So, who are we to question the choice of EU Commission candidates by the member states? Are we not supposed to respect the particular idiosyncrasies of every European nation? Some of these may be ephemeral, as in the present Italian case, some more permanent. Some could even turn out to be holy to the citizens of a particular nation.

Drawing the line

    If we start questioning the differences exhibited by our fellow European brothers, then one day they may start questioning our own peculiarities. Hence respecting an anomalous choice of candidates to the EU Commission, as shown by the Buttiglione case, might very well be in accordance with the European ideal of “unity in spite of diversity”.

    On the other hand, where should we draw the line? Because there unquestionably exists a line -- Europeans will never accept a new Hitler, or even a Jörg Haider.


    This principally important European issue will be settled by the European Parliament right now, on October 27, 2004.

    Or will it?

      On the morning of October 27, a few hours before the scheduled vote of approval or rejection of the new EU Commission by the European Parliament, the appointed (and Parliament-approved) Chairman of the EU Commission, José Manuel Barroso from Portugal, addressed the European Parliament and asked it to give him more time (by one month).

      This would give Barroso time to address the question of certain persons (= Rocco Buttiglione) who have been appointed as member candidates for the new EU Commission, but who have met with severe criticism from the European Parliament. Barroso promised to present a reworked constellation of Commision candidates, and a new approval-vote by the parliament will be taken at the end of November 2004.

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