16th Jan 2019

Is criticism of the EU blasphemy?

The European army which is not an army, according to British ministers, is not the only matter that is exercising the British media. There is the question of whether criticism of EU institutions should be treated in the same way as blasphemy and, therefore, be exempt from freedom of speech.

The subject came up in a case before the European Court of Justice, when Bernard Connolly, a former high-ranking employee of the Commission and author of the severely critical book “The Rotten Heart of Europe” appealed against the decision of the Court of First Instance.

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This had decided that the Commission was entirely within its rights for punishing Mr Connolly for writing a critical book. Employees of the Commission do not sign Official Secrets’ Acts and, in any case, what the Commission and the Court were objecting to was very often Mr Connolly’s opinions of what happened and continues to happen.

In his appeal Mr Connolly made it clear that the European Court of Human Rights has upheld the rights of individuals to criticize institutions under Article 10 of the Convention of Human Rights. He referred to a case heard in 1996 Wingrove v United Kingdom, which was about the British Government refusing to grant licence to a seriously blasphemous video. At the time the ECHR made it clear that in this particular and very unusual instance the British Government was in the right. Serious offensive blasphemy was not covered by freedom of speech. However, the Advocate-General in Connolly’s case, Dámaso Ruiz-Jarabo Colamer, turned the argument round in his stated Opinion. He made it clear that the precedent of the blasphemy case should apply to cases of criticism directed at EU institutions.

When the Daily Telegraph wrote about this development, the ECJ complained to the editor and demanded an apology. When other journalists tried to find out what was happening they were deliberately misled. Officials pointed to a different case (C-273/99P), also involving Bernard Connolly, expalining rightly that there was nothing about blasphemy in it. The correct case (C-274/99P) was not put on the ECJ website for two weeks. Finally, it has appeared but only in French and Spanish.

Next Monday the British Government will be asked in the House of Lords whether they support this interpretation and whether they will raise the subject at the Nice Conference. One of the reforms that may well be discussed at Nice will be the creation of the post of European Public Prosecutor to deal with “crimes against the Community”. Officially, these will be only financial crimes such as fraud or misappropriation of funds. (Will they start with the Commission?) However, in the light of the Advocate-General’s Opinion, one begins to wonder what else may come under the EPP’s jurisdiction.

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