The Europe of Public Opinion

The stronger the EP, the stronger the component of public opinion in determining European policy, and when it comes to us, this public opinion, as we know, has a weakness for the Palestinian side.

"The war over values" that is being waged in the United States is having tremendous reverberations here. Only few have noticed a similar war - no less emotional, and perhaps more interesting - that is taking place in our neighboring continent: Whereas U.S. President George W. Bush's neocons defeated Democratic candidate John Kerry's liberals - in the "Old World" it was their brothers, the "theocons" (theological conservatives) who were defeated, by an "order" of avowed secularists.

It happened last month, when the European Parliament (EP) refused to approve the composition of the European Commission (the executive branch of the European Union) that was presented to it. The main reason: The opinions of Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione, who was slated to be the commissioner for justice and home affairs. Buttiglione, who is close to the pope, is opposed to abortions, considers homosexuality a sin, supports the establishment of "transit camps" for those seeking political asylum, and defines the family as a unit "allowing women to have children while they have the protection of a man." Buttiglione could easily have replaced John Ashcroft, the retiring U.S. attorney general, and become part of Bush's second administration. Europe, on the other hand, decided to send him home. It said no to what it saw as benighted homophobia, no to reactionary chauvinism, and a definite no to Catholic fundamentalism. According to the weekly magazine The Economist, 59 percent of Americans define religion as a "very important." Only 27 percent of the Italians, 21 percent of the Germans and 11 percent of the French agree with this definition.

Buttiglione and his supporters eye America with longing. They speak of Europe as a continent where a "lay Inquisition" is taking place; of an altar on which the heretics are burning those suspected of dealing in "Catholic witchcraft," of "the totalitarianism of the decadent majority, and of the need to embark on a struggle "for the freedom of Christians" and against extreme political correctness gone mad in Europe. The fact is, they claim, that the same continent decided to omit from the draft of its constitution any mention of its Christian roots.

Israel, which lacks a constitution, and deals with constant tension between religion and state, should follow the antithesis of America with interest - the victory of secular, liberal values in Europe over religious, conservative ones. Moreover, it should show an interest in other, no less important strata underlying the intra-European struggle: The EP ordered the president of the EC, Jose Manuel Barosso, to present it with new candidates for the executive body. Barroso gave in. The hearing for the new commissioners will begin today.

The victory of the Parliament is not only a victory of values. It is also a victory for pan-European federalism over nationalism; a victory of parties of the left and of liberal-democrats, of centrist parties and of Greens, and even of several Christian democratic parties. All these have abandoned their national label and combined in order to enable "Europe of the people" to defeat "Europe of the national governments", to challenge the arbitrary appointments of commissioners by those same governments, and to strengthen the only institution that is elected directly by all the citizens of the continent - the European Parliament.

The pundits saw this as "the EP's declaration of independence." They identified another victory here: that of European democracy over its elitist bureaucracy. The EP will not be another rubber stamp for the governments. It is claimed that the balance of powers in Europe has changed, and a new era has begun: an era of political maturity and democratic legitimacy, an era of representation, and an era of closer connections between European institutions and the common citizen.

The Europe that is coming into being is wearing new clothes, but these are not arousing more than a yawn among the decision-makers in Jerusalem. Their indifference is mistaken: As the "democratic deficit" in the EU is reduced, and as it becomes more representative, the organization is expected to gain more popularity and power. From 1979 - when the first general elections for the EP were held - until today, this multinational institution has been accumulating more and more powers, and it is gradually taking on the character of an "ordinary" parliament. The EP is today involved in most of the legislation in the EU. Its increasing influence on the everyday life of almost half a billion citizens is expected to increase further, if and when the process of ratifying the constitution is completed, in 2007.

The EP can prevent the signing of important bilateral agreements. It can certainly prevent new countries from joining the EU. For example, even if French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and their 22 colleagues in the European leadership stand on their heads, Turkey will not be able to join the EU if the EP opposes its joining. The stronger the EP, the stronger the component of public opinion in determining European policy, and when it comes to us, this public opinion, as we know, has a weakness for the Palestinian side.