Barroso on riots: Europe must fight

Posted in Europe | 16-Feb-06 | Author: Graham Bowley| Source: International Herald Tribune

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso addresses the European Parliament during a debate on the incidents in several Muslim countries following the publication of caricatures of Muhammad, in Strasbourg February 15, 2006.
STRASBOURG In the face of escalating attacks against foreigners in the Muslim world, the European Union's chief executive on Wednesday laid down a clear marker for violent critics of the Prophet Muhammed cartoons, saying that Europe now had to fight for its core European values, including freedom of speech.

"We have to stick very much to these values," said José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission. "If not, we are accepting fear in this society."

Referring to his youth when he grew up under a totalitarian regime in Portugal, Barroso, a former prime minister there, said in an interview that Europe had to defend its right to have in place a system that allowed the publication of the cartoons.

"I understand that it offended many people in the Muslim world, but is it better to have a system where some excesses are allowed or be in some countries where they don't even have the right to say this?" he said. "This reminds me of my own country up to 1974. I defend the democratic system."

He said that European society was based on principles including equality of rights between men and women, freedom of speech, and a clear distinction between politics and religion.

Barroso has faced criticism that he has not done enough to support Denmark, a member of the EU, following threats and attacks over the cartoons, first published in a Danish newspaper. But Barroso attacked the "stigma against Denmark."

"What is not right is to put the blame on a single people or say the people of Denmark have to be blamed," he said, expressing "solidarity" with Danish people.

To avoid a clash of civilizations in Europe and help integration, European leaders have to be careful to make a "clear distinction" between nondemocratic Muslims in Europe and those who believe in European values, which "are the vast majority of Muslims," and to reach out to these, he said.

"Islam is part of Europe," he said. "We have a very important Islamic heritage."

Barroso said that Europeans from every walk of society had to be careful to expunge all forms of prejudice against Islam from public life, mentioning the references to "infidels" in his own school textbooks when he was growing up.

"We have to speak to the moderate Islamic leaders and make a clear distinction between natural expression of belief, which we respect, and what is a manipulation and fundamentalism. This is a very difficult thing to do because this is an area where there is the possibility of populism" in Europe, he said.

He said Islam had a great tradition of tolerance but that "the problem is a problem of developing political structures and political systems" which support this tolerance.

In one of his first public comments on the cartoon controversy, Barroso made a distinction between the initial publication of the cartoons by the Danish newspaper and the re-publication by a raft of newspapers and magazines across Europe, which he termed a "provocation."

"They had that right, but it is a provocation," he said.

Since taking office 15 months ago, Barroso has presided over a populist backlash against economic reform in Europe and the defeat of Europe's constitutional treaty, caused partly by voters' fears about the possible future expansion of the EU to new countries, including overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey, and the fear of competition from immigrants.

This has forced him to accept the watering down of key economic programs. But speaking on the eve of a crucial vote in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on a package of legislation to liberalize Europe's services sector, Barroso defended his reformist credentials and said the slower pace of reform was a reflection of the democratic processes of an EU of 25 countries.

This should be welcomed, not decried, Barroso said.

"We can't compare the EU with an integrated polity" like the U.S., he said. "We are 25 not one. They take a lot of time. We are not China or the U.S. It is the essence of Europe. We want to be 25 free democracies."

He also said that since the defeat of the constitution Europe had entered a new, pragmatic stage in which it would push forward project-by-project according to political need rather than through any grand institutional sweep.

"It is this political dynamic that will create the institutional consensus" and not the other way round, he said.