Germany's Feelings Hurt, Europe Trembles

A Youtube video produced by the European Union's (EU) parliament has created controversy in more ways than one. While offending German national sensibilities, the video also called into question the commitment of the European Parliament (EP) and other European governmental entities to open debate about the often interrelated themes of Islam and immigration. Underlying questions remain even after the EP's recall of the video.

The conservative German website Politically Incorrect (PI) notes that the video in question was one of three online public service advertisements (PSA) promoting EP activities. Two of these videos are still available at the EP's official website. One English-language video titled "The European Parliament Working for Equality" addresses issues of women's equality with a female coffee shop barista simultaneously trying to perform a second job as a call-center operative. The other French-language video subtitled in English is titled "The European Parliament Protecting Children's Rights" and shows children working as cleaners in a Belgian public lavatory.

The recalled video, still available at PI with German subtitles, was a German-language PA titled "The European Parliament Defending Freedom of Speech." In the PA, a German passenger train conductor enters a passenger car to check tickets. He announces that a new EU directive has prohibited the discussion of "religion, immigration policy, and corruption" for the "general improvement of travel conditions." Baffled passengers respond with comments of "That is certainly no joke?" and "That reminds me of a situation 60 years ago" in the Third Reich. The conductor warns that violations will result in removal from the train. Like the other PAs, the train video concludes with English-language statements that "Freedom of speech is a given in the EU" and "What if you were asked to shut up?"

As the German newsweekly Der Spiegel reported online, this PA showing a German stereotypically demanding order caused offense by raising the image of the "hated German." Herbet Reul, chairman of the German Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) EP members, condemned the PA as a "gross negligence" and demanded the video's immediate removal from the internet. Reul asserted that "such an advertisement is irresponsible in times in which Germany is associated with Nazi symbols because of its savings appeals" due to the EU's ongoing monetary crisis.

Comments from PI's readers raised other objections. One described the depiction of the EU defending free speech as a "satire" while another dismissed the PA as "merely propaganda like in the GDR" (The German Democratic Republic or former East Germany.) Another complained that in the EU "citizens are permanently condemned for the expression of facts." He referenced a news story link on the January 2009 conviction of the Austrian politician Susanne Winter for calling Islam's prophet Muhammad a "pedophile" who wrote the Koran during "epileptic fits." In the same address, Winter also warned against an "immigration tsunami." As Soeren Kern of the Gatestone Institute has chronicled, Winter is merely one European who has faced legal difficulties in recent years due to critical/condemnatory comments concerning Islam and/or immigration in Europe.

Even if individuals who critically discuss the religion of Islam and/or immigration do not face legal penalties, they often encounter the scorn of European political elites. The lifelong Labour Party supporter and grandmother Gillian Duffy learned this in 2010 when Prime Minister Gordon Brown called her "bigoted" during his unsuccessful reelection effort. Brown inadvertently made his comment before a live microphone after a campaign stop during which Duffy in conversation with Brown had said, "You can't say anything about immigrants. All these Eastern Europeans, where are they flocking from?" Opinion polling showed immigration as "second only to the economy among people's concerns at the election." A member of a pro-Labour think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), observed that "opponents" of immigration were often treated as "nasty, stupid and backward." Following public outcry, Brown personally apologized to Duffy.

As the PI comments indicate, modern Europeans like Duffy consider themselves to be in a society, if not like the Third Reich, than at least one in which certain taboo topics present political-legal minefields. There is perhaps no better example of the oft-invoked "chilling effect" of various restrictions upon free speech. Yet, surely the intellectual interchange encompassed within free speech is just as worthy of the EP's consideration, and perhaps more currently pressing, as gender equality or opposition to child labor. At least for creditability's sake, the EP should pay more attention to the cause of free speech.

The Middle East Forum's Legal Project sponsored this article.