Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have the right to use the premises of the parliament for their own activities. They can reserve conference rooms to give press conferences, invite speakers or show documentaries. So far the Parliament has never forbidden anyone from doing so. Until last week Gerard Batten, a British MEP, invited the Dutch politician Geert Wilders to show his movie "Fitna" to Batten's colleagues.
Mr. Wilders' documentary "Fitna" (which can be seen here) shows what is being done in the name of Islam. It ends with an exhortation to Muslims to remove from the Qur'an those parts which are used as a source of inspiration for, and justification of, hatred, violence and terrorism.
Last September Mr. Wilders visited New York to show his movie here at Hudson New York. None of the spectators walked out of the room suddenly "hating" Muslims. On the contrary, those who have watched the movie feel a deep respect for the honesty and courage of those Muslim-raised individuals who combat the aspects of Islam which incite to hatred, violence and terrorism.
Yet, three years ago, when Mr. Wilders announced his intention to make the movie, and even more vehemently after he released it, attempts were made to ban the movie and kill its maker. Jordan, though considered to be a "moderate" Muslim country, wants to prosecute him. The Duch politician needs constant police protection, lives in hiding and has not slept in his own house for four years. The Dutch television refused to air "Fitna" for fear of terror attacks. Youtube has refused it. Various Islamists, but also non-Islamist leftist organizations, have called for a ban of the movie.
As a consequence the Fitna affair has become a matter of free speech. Are there things, which for fear of terrorist retaliation, Westerners are no longer allowed to say? Are there issues we are no longer allowed to discuss?
As Mr. Wilders himself said, here in New York, "Freedom of speech is the most important of all civil rights. We are obliged to defend our freedom of speech [ ] for freedom of speech is the keystone of our modern, free societies.
Last Wednesday, the European Parliament dealt a significant blow to freedom of speech when it informed one of its members, Gerard Batten from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), that he was not allowed to have Mr. Wilders show Fitna in the conference room which had been reserved in the parliament building in Strassbourg for a conference on the "threats to democracy in Europe."
The Speaker of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Poettering, a German Christian-Democrat, referred to a decision taken last March by the Conference of Presidents, the leaders of the various political groups in the Parliament, "not to offer any space in the European Parliament" for Mr. Wilders' movie which it called "a movie on caricatures on Islam." Reacting to the ban on Fitna, which has already been shown in the Danish Parliament and will also be shown in the House of Lords in London next January, Mr. Batten said that the decision was unprecedented.
By its decision to ban the showing of a controversial, though politically relevant, movie it appears the European Parliament is making a caricature of itself.
Only one day earlier Mr. Poettering, backed by French President Sarkozy, defended the Conference of Presidents' behavior during a row with Vaclav Klaus, the President of the Czech Republic. The European delegation had told Vaclav Klaus that they "did not care about [his] opinions" and that he should fly the European flag from his residence along with the Czech flag.
When the Czech President replied that he had never been spoken to in such a disrespectful tone and style in his six years as President, indeed in the 19 years since his country had again become a democracy, Mr. Poettering angrily retorted that it is "unacceptable to compare us with the Soviet Union."
Nevertheless, what happened to Mr. Wilders last week gives an altogether different impression - an impression, sadly, that seems to confirm the observation of the former Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky that the European Union authorities are already behaving as if they are a "EUSSR" in the making.