- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 13, 2004

Politicians in Europe had better be careful what they think about. If you happen to be a devout Catholic, and refuse to pledge not to apply those beliefs to the public domain, you could be disqualified for public office.

That is what happened to Rocco Buttiglione, who was tapped to be justice commissioner in the European Commission — the executive arm of the European Union. Mr. Buttiglione’s private social beliefs, in keeping with his Catholic faith, conflicted with those of many legislators in the European Parliament. The parliament was on the verge of voting against all incoming commissioners, (since they have a right only to vote on the whole cabinet), primarily to keep out Mr. Buttiglione — eventhough the parliament also had reservations about the credentials of other nominees. Mr. Buttiglione resigned at the behest of his sponsor, Italian President Silvio Berlusconi, in order to prevent such a confrontation between the commission and parliament. Franco Frattini, Mr. Berlusconi’s foreign minister, will now preside over the justice portfolio. In view of Mr. Buttiglione’s earnest pledges to keep his personal beliefs separate from his public role, the parliament’s posturing verges on hysterical secularism.

Fundamental to secular tradition is that church and state be kept separate, not that public officials hold no private religious beliefs of their own. Slowly but surely, Europe is allowing some time-honored principles to be sacrificed in the name of secular fundamentalism. Catholics and other religious people are wondering how limited their roles might become in the future in Europe, even in non-public institutions such as universities.

The Buttiglione affair also brings to the fore some key questions about EU administration. The candidates for the European Commission were all tapped by the democratically elected governments of the European Union. How should the EU Parliament balance its own legislative ambitions against those of national governments and legislatures? What exactly does an EU democracy look like?

In short, with a pan-European democracy comes a loss of sovereignty. When in doubt, the parliament, and the commission for that matter, should defer authority to national governments — at least while British citizens continue feeling English and the Poles consider themselves Poles.

The European Parliament should therefore desist from making the commission in its own image. The commissioners that are picked by their national governments reflect the priorities of their country’s electorates to some significant degree — such is the concept behind representative democracy.

The commission and parliament settled their differences quietly this time, since Mr. Buttiglione was asked to quietly withdraw. But the incident demonstrates, though, the potential for major future rows between the two bodies.

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