Europe’s citizens must be on their guard against political correctness and moralising politicians, says the European Commission President JosÃ© Manuel Barroso in an interview with The Daily Telegraph.
The former Portuguese premier and centre-Right politician is concerned that freedom can be the loser in European culture wars over climate change, cheap air travel, Islam and free speech. “We should be aware of people who, sometimes for good reasons, try to establish what I call private moral codes, for this or that, be it climate change, religious behaviour or any kind of social behaviour,” he says.
Mr Barroso, a former Maoist student firebrand who fought against the Portuguese dictatorship in the early 1970s, still regards himself as a freedom fighter, even when the calls for bans or restrictions are in a worthy cause, such as global warming or respect for Muslim communities.
“I was 18 years old when a democratic revolution came to my country. Before we could not read the books or listen to the music we wanted,” he says, speaking in his 13th-floor office in the Berlaymont building in Brussels. “I am radical on these matters. If there is an excess of freedom, it is better to have excess than less.” Europe has been deeply divided over controversies surrounding Islam.
Violent protests on the continent, in the Middle East and in Asia followed the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Mohammed and the Pope faced calls to apologise after a speech on theology and the origins of Islam sparked international controversy. But Mr Barroso backs the right to offend.
“We have to show respect for all communities but the fundamental right of freedom of expression is for me more important than other collective rights,” he says. Growing up in the Portugal of the 1960s, Mr Barroso remembers being compelled to wear quasi-military uniforms. “I hate uniforms,” he says.
His own personal experience of authoritarianism has made him wary both of those who are seeking to ban the wearing of the Islamic veil and Muslims who require girls to cover up. “I think the UK has the right approach. The veil should not be banned just as girls should not be forced to wear it. “People should be able to choose what clothes they wear – as long as they don’t go naked of course.”
As the European Union prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding Treaty of Rome, Mr Barroso insists that the rights of the individual, within the law, over moral strictures from either secular or religious communities, are sacred.
“Shall we respect the rights of a community to impose, for instance on a girl, a specific way of doing things or shall we give primacy to the rights of the girl, or it could be a boy, to choose?” he says. “I have no doubts. In the Europe I want, the right to choose has primacy.”