TCS Daily

Is This the End of Rocco?

By Craig Winneker - October 27, 2004 12:00 AM

Good old-fashioned political battles are rare in Brussels, where marathon disagreements over cod-fishing quotas or qualified-majority-voting logarithms are what normally pass for high drama.

So it has been refreshing over the last couple of weeks to see politicians, bureaucrats and opinion-leaders in the EU capital engaging in the kind of down-and-dirty melee we've come to expect in Washington or London. That is to say, one being waged in dramatically inverse proportion to its actual significance.

What started out as a hullabaloo - indignant reaction from parliamentarians to some ill-considered comments made by Italy's nominee for the European Commission during his confirmation hearing - has grown into a full-fledged hubbub. At stake is not simply the question of whether 25 new commissioners will be allowed to take their posts next week nor even the fragile political standing of the institution's next president, but also the future of the European project and possibly even democracy itself.

OK, that may be overstating things a bit. But the Pope has already gotten involved and Mel Gibson can't be far behind. This is serious.

Incoming Commission President José Manuel Barroso has impressed many with his media savvy and his near-Clintonian ability to say just what any particular audience wants to hear. But the concrete of his European political foundation is only just beginning to dry, so naturally members of the EU Parliament - especially ones from the center-left and left-leaning political groups - want to scratch their names into it.

Rocco Buttiglione, a former minister in the Italian government and the man Barroso had chosen to head up the Commission's justice and civil rights department, gave them the perfect opportunity.

During his Parliamentary confirmation hearing, Mr. Buttiglione declared that women exist "to have children and be protected by their husbands" and said he believes homosexuality to be a "sin". He also said he wouldn't let his personal moral beliefs influence his policymaking. But the remarks caused an uproar and led to his being the first Commission nominee in the history of the EU to be rejected by the European Parliament.

Some, including the Vatican, have rushed to defend Mr. Buttiglione, accusing his tormentors of a "secular Inquisition." (A more appropriate analogy might be the Monty Python version of the Inquisition, in which the torturers used such implements as "the comfy chair" and "the soft pillow" to great effect.)

The Italian last week issued the requisite apology - or at least a textbook non-apology that amounted to expressing "deep regret" for all the fuss. And Mr. Barroso bent over backwards to appease his critics, promising to set up a subcommittee of other commissioners to make sure Mr. Buttiglione's personal views do not encroach on EU legislation.

This offer was rejected as too little, too late by socialists in the Parliament. Never mind that it was both unnecessary and absurd. The Commission acts as a whole, and nearly everything it does is subject to the approval of member states or the Parliament, so the notion that Mr. Buttiglione would launch a one-man jihad against working gay mothers is far-fetched.

But the issue is no longer seems to be Mr. Buttiglione or the handful of other Commission nominees who have offended one party group or another for some pet political reason. Now, it's an inter-institutional battle, a game of chicken between the historically strong Commission and the once-weak but gradually empowering Parliament.

The Parliament must approve the 25 Commission nominees en bloc; it cannot reject one or a few. If it vetoes the whole incoming class, the EU would suddenly find itself without a new Commission - and would have to ask the outgoing one to stick around for a while. So Mr. Barroso was gambling that MEPs would not sacrifice the whole slate of candidates just to make a point. Either that or hoping that Mr. Buttiglione would cash in his chips and head back to Rome. In the end, it was Barroso who folded, withdrawing the slate today and putting off a vote.

What will happen if there is no Commission? We don't have to look that far back in EU history to find the answer: Not Much.

In March 1999 the Commission headed by Luxembourg's Jacques Santer resigned en masse after allegations of fraud had tarnished a few of its members. Europe was left without a Commission until the new one was appointed six months later. The EU functioned, the 19,000 bureaucrats who work for the Commission continued in their jobs, and the earth turned on its normal axis. (Actually, in that case, the disgraced Commissioners continued to serve during the interregnum in what was called a "caretaker role" - begging the question, what the hell is the difference?).

As for this year's standoff, we won't know for sure whether a full-blown crisis can be averted until Day One of the new Commission's mandate, when its members either take office or don't. Actually, we may have to wait until Day Two. Monday is a holiday.

A version of this article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal Europe.


TCS Daily Archives