The European Parliament’s Wednesday afternoon topical debate during its Strasbourg plenary is usually decided a week earlier by MEP group leaders and is known as a showcase of lively and topical parliamentary debate.
However, this week’s debate on “European Commission guidelines on inclusive language” proved to be a different story feeding into an ideological war over words.
Usually, inclusive language debates lean into gender discourses, but this issue was made topical by relating it to the festive season. An internal draft paper from Equality Commissioner Helena Dalli had caused indignation among the right as it was purportedly suggested to “ban Christmas”.
And, as we who dared listen to the debate were reminded ad nauseam: Christmas is just around the corner.
After the outcry from the political right in Parliament, the paper was withdrawn by the Commission which is, after all, led by a centre-right president. Case closed, then?
Usually, inclusive language debates lean into gender discourses, but this issue was made topical by relating it to the festive season. An internal draft paper from Equality Commissioner Helena Dalli had caused indignation among the right as it was purportedly suggested to “ban Christmas”
Or maybe the centre and far left called the debate to protest the withdrawal of what was, in their view, an important document in the fight for inclusion?
It was in fact the centre-right the EPP itself, which had with a little help from further down the spectrum, put it on the agenda.
Why? EPP Group President Manfred Weber, opening the debate attempted an explanation:
“Because people feel uneasy about this, they are asking questions about what is going on here.”
It helps to imagine Weber’s constituency in rural Bavaria, a devoutly Catholic region, which he reflected on in the hemicycle:
“I’m a Catholic, I believe in God, I believe God comes to us at Christmas and shows us how to live a meaningful life.”
The pious group president was also careful not to lose sight of the European context and duly stressed religious freedom, including the “freedom not to believe” as a fundamental right.
However, he then added a quantifier that would probably raise eyebrows in constitutionally secular countries like, say, France: “Freedom of religion should not be mistaken for a form of tolerance that would consign all expressions of belief into the private domain.”
"People feel uneasy about this, they are asking questions about what is going on here. “I’m a Catholic, I believe in God, I believe God comes to us at Christmas and shows us how to live a meaningful life” EPP Group President Manfred Weber
Many expressions of belief were presented in the chamber following his example, from Christians of Orthodox, Catholic and Calvinist branches.
And all of them, without exception, ended their interventions with what must now be understood as less of a seasonal greeting than as the battle cry of the day: “Merry Christmas!”
The Renew Group’s former president Dacian Cioloș found a liberal merit in the thrust of the debate, insisting that while the guidelines were drawn up “with the best intentions at heart (…) I do not need the Commission to tell me whether I can say ‘Merry Christmas’ or not” – and he earned himself applause from Weber for it.
For the Greens/EFA Group Vice-President Alice Kuhnke (SE) the case was clear-cut and irredeemable:
“There are many challenges we face, and you decide to make a mountain of a mole hill (…) you should be ashamed of yourselves”.
The Left Group’s candidate for the European Parliament presidency Sira Rego adopted the more conciliatory tone. “Don’t worry,” she told the opposite political spectrum. “Your religious beliefs are not at risk, festivities will not be cancelled. We’re simply talking about rebalancing things.”
But the addressed were not soothed and felt the identity of the Western World was being threatened.
Spanish member of the ECR Group bureau Jorge Buxadé Villalba demanded to know from the Commission: “At what point did you decide to destroy everything, when did you decide to work at the service of evil?”
Many expressions of belief were presented in the chamber... And all of them, without exception, ended their interventions with what must now be understood as less of a seasonal greeting than as the battle cry of the day: “Merry Christmas!”
Many, notably from the Non-Attached members of the Hungarian ruling party, the ECR members of the Polish ruling party and of the ID Group called for the sacking of Commissioner Dalli for failing to uphold our “Judeo-Christian” roots, as many held, or even for “treason”, as French ID Group member Gilles Lebreton argued.
Like some others, he claimed that Commissioner Dalli obviously didn’t have the courage to appear before the chamber.
It remains unclear where these members gleaned this piece of inside information, but it was refreshing to hear from Belgian ECR Group member Assita Kanko – certainly no fan of a policy of prescribed language – a more nuanced view of why the Vice-President for Promoting the European Way of Life rather than the Commissioner for Equality took part in the debate:
“Does the Commission really believe that women can’t deal with big problems, and that a man has to come in to sort it out? Can the Commission explain why Ms. Dalli is not here? Mr. Vice-President Schinas is a victim of sexism, and so is Ms. Dalli.”
Explanation came there none, and the vice-president concluded the debate with a recourse to the official line.
“Europe is facing many pressing challenges, it is our duty to chart the way forward together while championing a model of society and a European way of life that does not leave anyone behind but gives everyone equal opportunity, and respect to our diversity.”
Amen to that.