Private prejudices must be kept out of public roles

An EU commissioner who regards homosexuality as a sin should not be in charge of equal rights

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The case of Rocco Buttiglione shows, apart from anything else, how very difficult it is going to be to reconcile the different approaches to governance which the European Union member states have evolved. The emphasis so far has been on the opinions which interestingly prevail in North and South - how utterly fascinating and quaint that some Italians believe that women should be in the kitchen and that homosexuals are going to run on burning sand for eternity. But in reality, it's all about political structures.

The case of Rocco Buttiglione shows, apart from anything else, how very difficult it is going to be to reconcile the different approaches to governance which the European Union member states have evolved. The emphasis so far has been on the opinions which interestingly prevail in North and South - how utterly fascinating and quaint that some Italians believe that women should be in the kitchen and that homosexuals are going to run on burning sand for eternity. But in reality, it's all about political structures.

To recapitulate: Mr Buttiglione, a member of the Italian union of Christian Democrats and Democratic Centre, has been proposed as the European Union's commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs by the incoming president, Jose Manuel Barroso. At the hearing to confirm the appointment, the relevant committee of the parliament asked him,in relation to equal rights, about the question of homosexuality.

Mr Buttiglione said that, as a devout Roman Catholic, he regarded homosexuality as a sin but not a crime. After this, and other remarks about immigration and minority rights, the committee voted against his appointment by a narrow majority. Subsequently, he was reported as saying that "children who don't have a father, but only a mother, are children of a mother who is not very good". Then, perhaps losing the sense of what he was saying, "children who have only a father are not children because a man alone can only produce a robot, not a child".

As soon as outrage began to be expressed at these odd statements, Mr Buttiglione was quick to point out that he hadn't been talking about single mothers, but about the relation between Europe and the United States in metaphorical terms. The point that his metaphor was perhaps in dubious taste, and questionably true, remained unanswered.

Does this not seem like quite a simple question? If, as seems to have been decided, the EU's role with relation to equal rights is to protect and apply them, rather than restrict them, then the commissioner in charge of the subject should not ideally be driven by an agenda that directly conflicts with that policy. An important task over the next few years for anyone concerned with rights for minorities will be to ensure the protection of the gay minority's employment, housing and other rights.

A committed Roman Catholic, who openly regards homosexuality as a sin, cannot with any conscience promote policies that make it easier for homosexuals to live their lives without shame or persecution. National parliaments, and the European Parliament, are going to pursue exactly these policies, under the remit of the new justice commissioner.

We are probably getting to the point where such views as Mr Buttiglione's are just inappropriate in a major public official. Some of his defenders point out that his views reflect the views of a large proportion of the general public, but this surely misses the point. In the first place, there are quite a number of doctrines that are widely held which aren't thought to be acceptable in people in this position. If he admitted to disliking other groups who have been stigmatised by Roman Catholics, nobody would say that a European commissioner is entitled to think whatever a lot of southern Europeans think. It would just be wrong.

And remember, this is an official post, not one of democratic election where someone has been chosen by the electorate to express exactly these views. It is not comparable to, say, the election of a member of the BNP to a local council, where, however deplorable we may find those who voted in such a way, we accept the democratically elected views. It is much more like the choice of an admitted member of the BNP to be the Permanent Secretary of the Home Office. It would not happen, and should not.

At least, it would not in Britain. The fundamental problem is that the European structures don't have a clear distinction between political and official roles, or not one that commands any great confidence. Although Mr Buttiglione stressed that he considered homosexuality a sin, but not a crime, one probably cannot draw the conclusion that he was saying "although that is my private view, for the purposes of the job that will be entirely irrelevant, and I will do my public duty".

No one really doubts that Mr Buttiglione, should he ever be appointed, will bring his political convictions, private though they now ought to become, into his new post. There may be jobs in the commission where such convictions can be irrelevant - there is talk of transport, which sounds acceptable. Though one might not actually want to meet someone like Mr Buttiglione, we have not quite reached the point where his beliefs bar him altogether from public life.

What does seem true is that now, where his beliefs are relevant, they are inappropriate. And the judges of that had better be those who are affected by these policies, not Roman Catholic lives to which they will make absolutely no difference.

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