Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Rough Justice

There has been a controversy in the EU recently regarding the comments of a man soon to be appointed to the European Commission. Senor Buttiglione, the Italian nomination to the Commission, has been quoted as saying that he believed homosexuality to be a sin; as a result there has been the predictable indignation from the self appointed defenders of European values. There is talk of the whole commission being rejected on the back of his comments.

Many issues naturally arise from such a controversy. Perhaps first of all the whole process of nomination demonstrates better than anything the administrative muddle that currently operates within the EU; the member states nominate a commissioner each, but they then have to be ratified as a bunch by the Parliament itself. Something seems quite strange about this process - for example we will have a European energy minister who knows the square root of sod all about energy - and it shows the uneasy balance between the European Parliament and the national governments of the member states. Of course, a lot of this could be circumvented by actually introducing a much greater degree of democracy and choice into the whole process of choosing commissioners - but this would lose the much-vaunted "commissioner per country" scheme; and besides, the last thing the Eurosceptics want is for the "unaccountable and bureaucratic" EU to actually have a mandate!

But more interesting, certainly in the way the debate has assumed, is that it is assumed that private views can impinge on the ability of someone to do a public job. Matthew Parris was particularly scathing in his article in The Times on Saturday; saying he had had enough of freedom of religion justifying archaic views. Certainly there is an argument for this - but to actually implement it would be impractical, highly controversial, and ultimately wrong. Yes, evangelical Christianity and Catholicism may abhor abortion and homosexuality; many Muslims disavow Western liberal values in their treatment of women; Jews and Muslims kill animals in a barbaric way so that they are religiously able to eat their meat. Yet democracy, if it is to mean anything, must allow these people to hold their points of view - they are not anti-democratic until they become coercive or demand the enforcement of these viewpoints. They must be allowed to hold their views, just as much as we are allowed to tell them that they are wrong.

Additionally, there seems to be no actual evidence that Senor Buttiglione will take any action to attack the rights of Muslims once he has assumed his position. His words may make us question this, but he himself makes a distinction between seeing homosexuality as a sin and seeing it as a crime; the latter would make his position untenable. As far as I can tell, in any of his previous jobs there was no evidence that he has taken action to prevent homosexuals holding civil rights - whilst I may think there are probably better suited candidates for such a position, the structure of the EU doesn't allow for them to be chosen. Indignation at his proposed appointment, however, is counter-productive, for all it does is reinforce the negative view of Europe that it has a particular political line to tread. And in this particular case, whilst large swathes of opinion may disagree with the proposed commissioner's views, there are also large swathes of opinion which agree with him. The EU will not convince people of its merits while it seeks to impose its own private agenda on institutions which do not possess a democratic mandate in the first place. As I will post later, diversity is the best way of finding effective and practical solutions; silencing views we may not agree with is the quickest way of arguments becoming irrelevant.

Back to the major point - I have still not seen any evidence that suggests Buttiglione will be unable to make a distinction between his professional and personal opinions. My favourite episode of The West Wing was the one discussing the death penalty - in particular making the distinction between the office of the presidency and the President himself. The President decides he cannot commute a death sentence because he is fearful of the precedent it would set; this despite the fact he considers putting someone to death an immoral act. Now, I know we should not take too much from television programmes - perhaps especially from ones so clearly idealised on a political line (who would object to Josiah Bartlet being in charge of their country?). Yet I see no reason why we should not give the commissioner the benefit of the doubt - until he proves otherwise. For many people his views may prove unpalatable (although, as so often in today's culture, we are guilty of pigeonholing views on matters such as these into all-too-simplistic camps). Unless he actually hinders homosexuals in his role as justice minister, however, there is no reason, based solely on his public pronouncements, to deny him the role. After all, I thought another of the Western liberal values we were supposed to believe in was "innocent until proven guilty".