European guilt

Hans-Gert Pöttering (picture European Parliament)

I was at a talk today about the history of the state of Israel – this year marks 60 years since it was founded – and I asked about the relationship between Israel and Europe. We hear a lot about the connection between Israel and America, but what about Europe (which is rather nearer, after all). The speaker, Colin Shindler, had something interesting to say on the subject, namely that the Europeans had been hampered by, on the one hand, their guilt about the Holocaust, and on the other by their more extensive commercial links with the Arab countries. It has made for some difficult and sometimes diffident policy-making. It is an area where I am convinced that Europe can and should do more.

On the question of Holocaust guilt, though, this is something that runs through the whole idea of Europe itself. It is no accident that the determination to eradicate the threat of war from our continent came hard on the heels of the realisation of war had really meant. Commissioner Margot Wallström spoke about this in Terezin three years ago (read about it on this website here and here) and she was right.

The issue emerged recently in the European Parliament in an outburst by Conservative MEP Dan Hannan. (Readers will recognise him as a regular on this blog, but he has surpassed himself this time.) He denounced the president of the EP, Hans-Gert Pöttering, by comparing him with the Nazis, and has been thrown out of the Christian Democrat group as a result.

But a bit of background first. Dan Hannan opposes the Lisbon treaty and supports a referendum on the treaty in an attempt to prevent it from being ratified and coming into force.

He is attempting to obstruct the conduct of business in the democratically-elected European Parliament in support of his campaign, namely to prevent the passage into law of a measure treaty that is supported by all 27 member state governments but which he happens to oppose. Is it really correct that the daily practice of democracy should be taken hostage in this way by someone who has lost the vote?

If his argument is based on the similarities between the Lisbon treaty and the previous constitutional treaty, and the argument that the similarity between the two is so great as to indicate that the same ratification procedures should be followed for both, he will find that most countries did not require a referendum even on the constitutional treaty in 2004. His argument is therefore not that the previous ratification method should be used, but actually that a wholly new ratification method should be invented, overriding the constitutional provisions of the different member states, in order to give him the policy outcome that he prefers. And he is willing to disrupt the conduct of business of a democratically-elected parliament in pursuit of his attempt to overturn the constitutional provisions of 26 countries, 25 of which he is not a citizen. (The Irish constitution requires a referendum.)

If that makes his behaviour sound reprehensible, I am glad, because it is meant to.

To add to that behaviour such a gratuitous insult towards the president of the European Parliament was asking for trouble. His complaint was that Mr Pöttering wanted powers that would enable him to prevent the disruption – powers equivalent to those which are freely exercised by the speaker of the House of Commons, one might add – and that this was redolent of the Nazi treatment of the Reichstag. European guilt about the Holocaust was a major motivation for creating the European Union in the first place, and so misplaced allegations like this are not only insulting but also profoundly absurd. The European Union holds its member states to a system of democracy and human rights to make sure that what happened in the 1930s and 40s is never repeated.

The clear function of the European Union to prevent a recurrence of genocide in Europe adds to the sensitivity of the issue. Dan Hannan in his blog (which you can read here) notes that he was not the only person in the chamber to refer to the Nazis, but he is utterly wrong if he supposes that his attempt to disrupt parliamentary procedure and the actions of people to defend it can somehow be treated equally.

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