The good, the bad and the Rocco

Buttiglione represents an outdated, bigoted sect within an EU that has largely rejected such prejudices
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The Independent Online

He's got form - so much of it that the idea of appointing him EU commissioner for justice and home affairs sounds like a bizarre prank. Last year, Rocco Buttiglione sabotaged a European directive intended to outlaw discrimination in the workplace by introducing exemptions that allow the Italian military, police, prisons and social services to refuse to employ gay men and lesbians. Three years ago, during his first week as Italy's European Affairs minister, he called for a ban on artificial insemination and started a campaign to outlaw abortion. So much for the preposterous claim that Buttiglione, whose nomination by the incoming Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, caused an unprecedented crisis in Brussels last week, would not have permitted his private views to influence his public role.

His supporters have been whingeing ever since Barroso was forced into a humiliating climb-down on Wednesday, when MEPs made it clear they would reject all 24 commissioners en masse if he persisted with the nomination. There have been dark mutterings about anti-Catholic and anti-Christian prejudice, as though Buttiglione is somehow the victim in all this, when the simple truth is that his views are in direct conflict with notions of equality and civil rights enshrined in European and national conventions.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, chose Buttiglione as Italy's national commissioner - thankfully he has now dropped the idea - because they share an antipathy to the emerging secular values of the EU. Too often, people misread Berlusconi, failing to see the sinister, hard-right politics behind the buffoonish exterior, but we can learn a great deal from his protégé's record.

Buttiglione said at his confirmation hearing that he regards homosexuality as a sin, but that's not the half of it. According to an organisation called Catholics for a Free Choice, he opposes giving same-sex couples similar rights to heterosexuals, and condemned the 2001 Gay Pride march in Milan, declaring that he regarded "homosexual behaviours" as a indicator of "moral disorder". In 1989, at a conference on HIV at the Vatican, he said that Aids was a "divine punishment for homosexuality and drug use".

Buttiglione's view that women were put on earth to have children is well known - he thinks single mothers are "not very good people", apparently - but his views on immigration have received less attention. He supports camps for asylum-seekers and quotas for immigrants, arguing that the "level of criminality" of each national group should be taken into account when the quotas are fixed. Certain groups have a high level of criminality, he believes, compared to "those who are Catholic and Christian". When a Muslim community leader won a court battle to remove a crucifix from an Italian school attended by his children, Buttiglione denounced the decision and said it was "not up to a crazy Muslim activist to forbid it".

Buttiglione has links with the ultra-conservative Catholic organisation Opus Dei and is a member of Comunione e Liberazione, a Catholic sect whose members are known not very fondly by their opponents as God's Stalinists. Buttiglione was one of the people who argued last year that the word "God" should be included in the preamble to the European constitution - as if there weren't enough clauses to quarrel over already - and his rejection last week is a victory for those of us who do not want to see the EU turned into an exclusive Christian club. This is essential if Turkey is eventually to be allowed in, but it is also an important step in defining modern European identity.

Most European countries used to be Christian. Some still are, but there are also many states where the decline of the church, the presence of big immigrant populations and the rise of secular morality have radically changed the picture. In effect, Buttiglione represents an outdated, bigoted sect within an EU that has largely rejected such prejudices. He is welcome to his views, but trying to give him a job with responsibility for equality and civil liberties makes about as much sense as appointing me a bishop.