Morten Messerschmidt is a member of the European Parliament for Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party). He wrote the following article about free speech in Europe for the website of Trykkefrihedsselskabet (The Danish Free Press Society). Many thanks to Anne-Kit of Perth, Australia for the translation.
A wet blanket on freedom of expression
By Morten Messerschmidt, 24 April 2010
“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” This is the wording of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, Article 11, which would suggest that the European Union generally finds the expression of views to be enriching for democratic debate. In this context it is interesting to see that the Charter seemingly offers a broader protection for the freedom of expression than does the European Convention on Human Rights. Thus the Convention’s Article 10, 2 — the counterpart to Article 11 of the Charter — allows freedom of expression to be subject to limitations “… in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or the rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary”.
A similar provision can be found in Article 52 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, although here the requirements are that “… limitations may be made only if they are necessary and genuinely meet objectives of general interest recognised by the Union or the need to protect the rights and freedoms of others”.
On the one hand the Convention on Human Rights offers a broad selection of possible interpretations to limit freedom of expression as laid down by the Convention itself — this is not available in the EU Charter. On the other hand the EU Charter is written in “woolly” terms. What exactly is “general interest”? Some would interpret it extensively, perhaps even more so than the material limitations allowed for by the Convention. Others would say it would take a great deal before we can speak of objectives of general interest. The future will show what will be practised in law. The EU Court holds the future in its hands.
The quiet assassin of the nations
We may have a glimpse of this future if we investigate how other EU institutions today administer freedom of expression. And as a member of the EU Parliament I would naturally start right there. I invite the reader to share in the day-to-day experiences afforded us elected representatives of the European peoples. You see, in the EU Parliament there are limits to the freedom of expression. These limits have often affected members of the EFD Group (European Freedom and Democracy), of which the Danish People’s Party is also a member.
Anyone who is familiar with the culture of British debate will know that passions frequently run high in the House of Commons, where accusations and robust ad hominem attacks are accompanied by shouts and mockery from the chamber. While the Brits are neither prissy nor delicate in these matters, things are somewhat different in the EU Parliament. Nigel Farage, Chairman of both the EFD Group and of the British opposition party UK Independence Party (UKIP), experienced the truth of this in February when he stated that the new EU President — the somewhat colourless former Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy — had the charisma of a wet blanket and the appearance of a “bank teller”. Things got way out of hand when Farage also referred to the deeply divided and chaotic Belgium as a “non-nation”.
The real purpose of Nigel Farage’s speech was to point to the embarrassing fact that the role of Herman van Rompuy as EU President was a result of the Lisbon Treaty, and that he was never elected to the post by any people:
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“The question I would like to ask, and which I think everybody would like to ask, is this: Who are you? I have never heard of you, no-one in Europe has ever heard of you. I would like to know who voted for you? By which means would the peoples of Europe be able to remove you from your post? Is this European democracy?… I feel that you are both competent, efficient and dangerous and I am in no doubt that it is your intention to be the silent assassin of the European democracies and the European nations. It is as if you have an aversion to the mere existence of nations. Perhaps it is because you come from Belgium, which is more or less a non-nation,” said Nigel Farage.
At this stage the Chairman of the EU, Jerzy Buzek from Poland, interrupted the speech and silenced Nigel Farage at the insistence of, among others, the German chairman of the Social Democratic Group, Martin Schulz. Nigel Farage refused to apologise to Herman van Rompuy and was consequently fined €2,960 [approximately US$ 4,000]. But Farage is not the only member of the EU Parliament who has been on the receiving end of sanctions like this.
A few weeks after the above event another prominent member of UKIP, William, Earl of Dartmouth, had the experience of having his microphone cut during a parliamentary debate because — according to the Chairman, who always makes these decisions on his own — he veered from the agenda and questioned the EU “Foreign Minister” Lady Ashton about her past on the extreme left of British politics. William protested vehemently and was nearly escorted from the chamber by force.
As proof that we are talking about quite discretionary restrictions I can offer this: Not even an eyebrow was raised when said Martin Schulz accused various conservative parties of being “fascists”, when he accused the EFD Group of wanting to throw Europe into a WWII situation because we argued against the Lisbon Treaty during the Irish referendum, or when in general he has insulted the intelligence of opponents of the Treaty. What in reality is the difference between insulting people’s intelligence and calling someone a wet blanket? In the EU one statement is met with applause while the other entails fines.
Judge and court of appeal in one person
Suddenly the Charter’s beautiful promises and words that speak of freedom seem neither beautiful nor free. However, when we look at the further handling of complaints about sanctions, things go completely off the rails. Any member of the EU Parliament can of course make a complaint about being cut off from speaking or being fined. The authority of appeal is the Chairman of the EU Parliament. In other words the same person who typically imposes the sanction.
This compels me to return to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, whose Article 47, 2, as the counterpart to Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights, states that “Everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal previously established by law. Everyone shall have the possibility of being advised, defended and represented.”
It is of course difficult to determine how the EU would interpret the word “impartial”. But in Strasbourg the European Court of Human Rights has long ago decreed that “impartial” in terms of a court of law means that the judge in any particular case may not have passed judgement at an earlier point in time in the same case. It is unmistakable that this is highly reminiscent of the situation in the EU Parliament and its regime of censorship.
And now we are getting close to an answer to the question I asked above about the interpretation of the Charter. As is the case in any other EU concern, the overarching purpose of the Charter is to protect and expand the Union. People who take divergent viewpoints fall outside of this protection. Perhaps today one would go as far — as was done in earlier US law — as to declare such statements to be “non-statements”. In which case the next step, that of declaring these dissidents to be “non-humans”, is not that far away. And that would facilitate removing from these annoying, unintelligent, fascist opponents of the abolition of their nation states their status as human beings — and thus their right to invoke human rights. We must see what the future brings. As I said earlier — it is in the hands of the European Court.
Morten Messerschmidt is a Member of the European Parliament for the Danish People’s Party.
Hat tip: Henrik Ræder Clausen.