Rocco Buttiglione: 'The left does not want to talk, it prefers to marginalise. This is the new totalitarianism'

The Monday Interview: Italy's Minister for Europe
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For a man who has recently given the European Parliament the first opportunity in history to flex its muscles, by kicking him into touch, Rocco Buttiglione looks in pretty good shape. He has the perennial expression of a naughty schoolboy who knows his naughtiness does not matter because he will always be top of the class.

For a man who has recently given the European Parliament the first opportunity in history to flex its muscles, by kicking him into touch, Rocco Buttiglione looks in pretty good shape. He has the perennial expression of a naughty schoolboy who knows his naughtiness does not matter because he will always be top of the class.

Claiming to be inundated with messages of support after his humiliation at the hands of the European Parliament, which rejected him as the next EU justice commissioner, he is addressing packed houses in Milan and Rome and floating the idea of a new political movement to defend "the freedom" of Europe's Christians.

We meet in the lobby of one of Milan's grander hotels. He sweeps in, trailing aides, one of whom produces to order one of the acrid Toscano cheroots to which he is addicted. We settle down over tea and cheroot smoke in the hotel bar. If his mauling at the hand of the European left still rankles, the triumph of George Bush in the United States has allowed him to put it in perspective. He was the victim of a witch hunt, savaged by Europe's "morbid totalitarians". But the victory of Bush shows where Europe, and Italy, could be heading - if we are very lucky.

Because Mr Bush's triumph and Mr Buttiglione's recent humiliation at the hands of MEPs who forced his removal as Italy's nominee to the European Commission, are not, it transpires, unrelated events. Mr Bush's triumph shows the US continuing to plough into the future, propelled by a Christian majority that, since the Reagan years, has rediscovered its solidarity and its priorities.

Dr Buttiglione's rejection shows how far Europe has sunk, where the assertion of the rights of sinful minorities (such as homosexuals) threatens to marginalise the hard-working Christian majority and drag the continent into decadence and childlessness.

Rocco Buttiglione is a professor of philosophy as well as Silvio Berlusconi's Minister for Europe, and he takes the long view. To understand Mr Bush's victory, he says, "You must start with the change in the political, religious and economic landscape in the 1970s. In the beginning you have a trend of secularisation that brings with it the idea that we do not need the old virtues of the past any more. Because we are heading towards a new society.

"Mankind used to think that you derive your wealth through hard work. And at the centre of both our educative and our economic systems stood the idea of the independent man: the man who takes care of himself, who works hard, takes care of his offspring or her offspring. And that's the reason why [men and women] get married to one another, because it's very difficult for a woman to raise a child alone.

"We were told when I was a young man that all this was obsolescent and that the society of tomorrow would be a society in which everybody could be for himself. He did not need to have a strong character, to behave dutifully. I remember a slogan, 'If it feels good, it is good.' Well, we had to learn that many people do feel good but are bad. And this new culture had a tremendous success, but after a while [in the US] people reacted. They have seen that it does not work.

"Many of them were the so-called Democrats for Reagan. There was a tremendous shift in the years of Reagan, they moved towards Reagan because they found the Democrats had become a party that had no soul, it was a party of minority rights without having an idea for the majority of the people. If you want to understand why the United States is thriving today, you must understand this cultural revolution.

"The American religious landscape has undergone tremendous change over these years. Some mainstream churches accepted the idea that Christianity and Christian values were not fit for the world of today and we had to rethink our religious heritage so as to make it compatible with this new idea of man: a man who accepts the idea that if it feels good it is good.

"There was a revolt [against this] in the Christian churches. The mainstream churches declined and the evangelicals rose up. The religious landscape changed in favour of the evangelicals on the one hand and the Catholics on the other.

"Because Catholics resisted better. There was a secularist stream also within American Catholicism but there was also a strong reaction, and in the end the balance was rather in favour of a new militant American Catholicism, faithful to the Pope and more loyal to the Christian heritage."

The rejection of Buttiglione's candidacy for the European Commission came after he told the parliamentary committee vetting him that he "may or may not believe that homosexuality is a sin" - a nuanced answer to a questioner who had raised the "sin" issue, which was reduced in later summaries to the bald statement that he believed homosexuality was indeed a sin. Likewise his careful answers to questions about women and marriage were also, he maintains, wilfully torn out of context.

Yet if Mr Buttiglione's performance in Strasbourg was by no means as wild-eyed and fanatical as it has been painted, his own position as a militantly conservative Catholic could not be plainer. He is a close friend of Pope John Paul II, has written books on the Pope's thought, and is even credited with being the author of certain papal encyclicals.

As president of the Italian Union of Christian Democrats and thus one legatee of the crumbling glories of Italy's long-supreme "democristianismo", he seems hungry to get the glory days back with the help of his new movement, which while not a political party, will lobby for the inclusion of Christian principles in policy-making.

And just as the Catholic church is not trammelled by national boundaries, neither is Mr Buttiglione, whose fluent and erudite English has a pronounced mid-western twang, and who is as much at home hobnobbing with Michael Novak at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, a neo-conservative think-tank, as with the more reactionary cardinals in Vatican City.

In Buttiglione's view the decline of the Democratic Party, confirmed by John Kerry's defeat, provides an important lesson for Europe. "We are used to thinking that modernity is American and modernity is linked with secularisation ... It seems that reality does not correspond to this. Religious feeling declines for a while but then it increases.

"It has always been like this in the history of the West. And now we have reached the bottom and we are moving upwards ... So the country of modernity is also the country in which there is more religious feeling." Is Europe going the same way? "I don't know. I think that if we want to be competitive with the world of tomorrow we have to go the same way. Perhaps we will not.

"It is also possible that Europe chooses to decay, to become a place in which fewer and fewer children are born, fewer and fewer people find in their heart the courage of getting married and entering into this beautiful adventure of building up a family. In this case, well, Europe will be decaying and I hope this will not be the case."

One reason he hopes not is "because we live in a world in which there is a strong need of Europe, not to struggle against the United States but to moderate the United States". America's religiosity and bellicosity may appear two sides of one coin, but for Europe Mr Buttiglione wants one without the other. Like the Pope (and most Italian Catholics) he opposed the Iraq war. Yet now that America is there (and Italy at its side), he believes they must remain. "We have destabilised a vicious system," he says, "a wrong system, a bad system - but in any case it was a system. Now if we pull back the result will be anarchy and a new dictator who will perhaps be worse than the dictator who was there before ... It would have been better not to take this step, but we did, and then we must go to the end."

Does Dr Buttiglione blame himself for what happened in Brussels? "No, I don't, I did not introduce the word sin into the political debate, sin is a word that does not belong in a political debate. Others did and I was asked and I did not say that homosexuality was a sin.

"I said that I may think - perhaps I do, perhaps I don't - but in any case it has no impact on the political sphere. The problem is not sin but discrimination, and I am emphatically against discrimination.

"I may add today that my church teaches me that homosexuality is morally objectionable, but this falls within the sphere of the private individual and the state should not stick its nose in this sphere."

The implication of his rejection, he says, is that "anybody who in his private beliefs thinks that homosexuality is objectionable should be a second-class citizen in Europe. This includes not only Catholics but most Christians and many other people. They said that I am unfit for the simple fact that I say I may think that homosexuality is morally objectionable. This configures a kind of new Inquisition, in which you can discriminate against somebody because of his religious or philosophical beliefs.

"[On the left] there are shibboleths and you cannot discuss, they want to have their position taken for granted. They don't want to talk; they prefer to marginalise those who do not think like them. This is the new morbid totalitarianism."


Born: 8 June 1948, Lecce, Puglia, southern Italy

Education: Studied law at Turin and Rome universities

Academic career: An academic philosopher and political scientist.

1994 Secretary of the Popular party.

1994 MP for Milan

1995 Member of parliamentary commission for constitutional reforms

1995 Secretary of the CDU

1999-2004 Member of European Parliament

2001- Europe Minister in Silvio Berlusconi's coalition

Publications: Author of books and scientific essays