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Last Updated: Friday, 16 March 2007, 16:31 GMT
Europe diary: Whiff of hypocrisy

15 March 2007

BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell looks at varying definitions of hypocrisy in different parts of Europe, the unknown cost of EU efforts to avert climate change, and the Blair-Merkel relationship.

The diary is published every Thursday.


Heard the one about the politician's sex life, the gas guzzler and the Pope?

Jose Manuel Barroso
Barroso: Not usually one to blow a gasket
Shortly before last week's big summit to cut carbon emissions, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso uncharacteristically blew his gasket. He was being questioned about his choice of vehicle - a monstrous 4X4 which pumps out three times as much CO2 as a proposed new EU law would allow. The hacks were just doing their job: to most journalists the very whiff of political hypocrisy is like blood in the water to sharks.

But the Portuguese politician wasn't going to play by these rules. He said: "If we start now creating the idea that for every person we establish a certificate of good behaviour there is a risk that tomorrow it is not only ecological behaviour, it is family behaviour, sexual behaviour." Should we scoff or accept there is a genuine cultural argument here?


Just before this, someone close to Mr B was telling me of his boss's frustration at those in the media who were busily checking which commissioner drives what car. The gist of it was that he could not see why politicians - technical experts at designing the best possible laws - should have to behave in a certain moral fashion before any such law is introduced.

My contact claims this is a line through Europe, much more wobbly and patchy but just as real as the olive oil / butter line. It is the political line between Catholic and Protestant Europe. He thinks it is very Protestant to expect politicians to be secular saints who lead by example.

According to this theory, most Catholic nations accept flawed human nature for what it is and know that preachers may stumble in practice without affecting the truth of their doctrine, or indeed the wisdom of their laws. The flaw in this argument is that in resolutely Catholic Belgium it has been a great sport for the press comparing what monstrous cars ministers drive.


I was just musing on this when I got stuck in Madrid airport until the small hours, courtesy of Sir Ricky B. It's a wonderful new airport but the priority on such occasions is to conserve reading matter in case the plane never arrives.

Aristotle: Social hierarchies are natural
This bit of colour is just to explain why I finally got around to reading Europe 2050, a pamphlet of essays published by the Finns to mark their presidency at the end of last year. It had evidently been lurking at the bottom of my spacious if inelegant flight bag for several months, journeying with me around the continent.

What caught my eye was an article by Juha Sihvola. The professor argues that the difference in European social policies goes back to the ancient Greeks. To sub down a complex argument to its very basics, he says that the Aristotelian tradition of man as a social being fed in to Catholicism, but the Stoic distrust of emotion and human motives contributed to Protestant thought.

So Aristotle's theory of natural social hierarchies leads to a welfare service run by society at large and focused on those in most need. Stoicism, with its distrust of human nature, leads to universal provision run by the state. And he suggests the Calvinist doctrine of the elect, saved spiritually and rewarded by God materially, leads to an "on yer bike" mentality which "one might be inclined to blame... for... some of the acute problems of modern neo-liberalist ideologies."


For my money, the best article on the recent summit was by Dirk Kurbjuweit in Spiegel online. He highlights an embarrassing moment at the summit which, strangely, did not result in fireworks, did not lead to anyone's undoing. As much as hypocrisy, politicians being vague with figures acts as blood in the water and triggers hack attack. But climate change is at the moment seen as an issue more important than details, beyond details.

Angela Merkel
Merkel: It will all be all right in the end
At Merkel's news conference somebody asked the good straight question: how much will all this change to prevent climate change actually cost? Mrs Merkel and President Barroso looked slightly blank, slightly nervous. Into this hesitant gap came the killer follow-up: "What's the cost in euros? Millions... billions... trillions?"

Frozen half-laughs from the stage added nothing in the way of a real answer. Mrs Merkel indicated it would all be all right in the end. Of course, this is not the same as a politicians not saying how they'll pay for an increase in spending. It really is very difficult to project exacts costs weighing predicted gain against possible loss, balancing the savings of changing technologies against the cost of developing them. But it left me with the feeling that the real answer to "How much money?" was... er... lots.


The Spiegel article is entitled The Queen of Europe. But it seemed to me that Tony Blair rather liked his role as willing lieutenant and courtier to German royalty.

Angela Merkel and Tony Blair
Merkel and Blair: Queen and courtier?
He can in all fairness argue that he first put climate change on the EU agenda at the Hampton Court summit in 2005. Or to put it in a rather more negative way, by dropping Britain's long standing objection to an EU-wide energy policy he opened the door to a deal on climate change.

But it is odd how such a dominant politician seems almost happier playing second fiddle on the international stage. Perhaps with Merkel, as with Bush, it is the only role on offer. But who would have thought it, Blair as the ideal no.2? Gordon perhaps?

Please use the post form below to comment on any of the issues raised in the diary.

Deliberately choosing to stay with an inefficient, hulking car in spite of what is now known is, in fact, collusion with the forces that have brought us to this pretty pass, where now we are even worried about having to ban lightbulbs. For decades, literally, multitudes have clamoured about inefficient cars being shoved down the consumers' throats. The cars being sold today are less efficient than the cars I learned to drive on, in 1978. Now the carmakers are asking for "help". But talk to any insider - as many "offbeat" journalists have for years - and it is well known that more efficient engines have been in existence for almost as long as cars have been around. And other patents have simply been bought up & shelved.

So this is much more than Mr Barroso's private preference, or using butter instead of olive oil. It's quite literally collusion with a business partnership forged between carmakers & oil companies to keep both richer than reasonable: big cars come with bigger price tags that people foolishly accept; banks make more in interest off those bigger loans. And such collusion should, indeed, be called to account.
Maria Amadei Ashot, Berkeley, California, USA

Philosophical and religious arguments aside, it really does come down to leading by example, and the sad fact that the majority of humans on the planet these days are lacking in altruism and the maturity to handle the truth and do something about it. 98% of politicians can't see past the next re-election and have proven that is all they care about and those that are appointed seem to care very little... The human race needs to grow up. United we stand, divided we fall and at present from the look of things, the fall of the human race is going to be pretty spectacular.
Deirdre, London

I am not too sure we can blame our modern hypocrisy on Aristotle and others. One could even go back to the Roman notion that each generation becomes a little less vigorous than the preceding one. Examples such as these let us out of having to take responsibility for ourselves. Jesus had it right, strangely enough, when he said we must take up our own crosses daily.
Noland Bell, Athens, GA USA

You seem very concerned about the question "how much will all this change to prevent climate change actually cost?" The real concern should be, how much more will it eventually cost if we do nothing! Do you not change the oil in your car every so often to prevent it from eventually stopping? Which is cheaper in the long run, a seized-up engine or a dozen oil changes?
Chris, Trieste, Italia

Whatever you call it, cultural/religious difference, or sheer hypocrisy of some politicians, the bottom line is that everybody should abide by the law. If your car does not meet the requirements that you propose, it means that you're "more equal than the others".
RL, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Some level of family/sexual morality has been an essential part of human society throughout recorded history. Environmental morality is newer, but it can't replace the others - they must all hang together. When we start accepting arrogant hypocrisy in our leaders (and in ourselves) we miss the mark. We degenerate and end up with laws that are not implemented. We damage and abuse ourselves and each other, our civilization as well as our planet.
John Katrakis, Barrington, IL, USA

Re the comment by A.J. van der Veen, Amsterdam, Holland: I quite agree - everyone talks about global warming, massive pollution and deforestation - but not one of the major western nations or groups of nations has dared to utter the major cause or the best remedy - ie humankind's propensity to breed like rabbits and eat everything in their path regardless of all others has caused the problem. The best method of resolving the problem is to adopt population-reducing policies - reward small families, encourage birth control on a massive scale, discourage rampant over-breeding - allow the population to reduce by natural means. It follows that a 25% reduction in the population over the next 50 years along with improvements in technology would reduce carbon outputs by more than 25%.
M R Blakesley, Doncaster, England

My toes curl with embarrassment for many of you so certain of the righteousness of your beliefs. No one with any scientific fortitude is certain that climate change is occurring, because no one (inside the pro humans responsible for climate change lobby) can explain why temperatures were going down from 1940 to 1975 when CO2 was going up. The facts don't fit the propaganda... This is also not to say that improving the efficiency and cleanliness of power utilisation is bad, because clearly it is a good thing, but please save the fire and brimstone for religious zealots.
Richard, Derby

More to the point on the green issue, what's the cost if we don't - possibly the planet?
Mike Rodgerson, Hope Valley. UK

What do the hacks drive?
Paul Henry, Lancaster, UK

Nero fiddles while Rome burns. Pure and simple. Only applies as much to London, Amsterdam and Brussels as to Rome. Has anything in Europe changed?
Patricia Howard, Wageningen, the Netherlands

One problem with Mr. Barroso's argument is the issue of who is financially impacted by new laws and regulations. The politicians and administrators responsible for them fund themselves and their organisations very well indeed, and so tend to be insulated from their financial impact. The increased expense of targeted activities - international travel, large cars, stifling bureaucracy - impacts most of us, but doesn't seriously effect their way of life. So it isn't surprising that journalists focus on their continuing self-indulgence, and that Ms. Merkel and Mr. Barroso are ignorant of the cost of their proposals.
Ian Williams, Faversham, UK

I'd like to vote for a human being, go on drive a big car and have the guts to face the criticism. But, also get to work on solving the problems for the long term.
B. Smith, UK

I am surprise by yet another demonisation of Catholisism. Now is the bad catholic politicians that drive monstruous cars. I would like to point out that those catholic countries are not the ones that build the mounstruous machines. Fiat Punto's and the likes are the norm and the V8 supercharge junk is actually build in the UK, Germany and the US.
Pier Chiti, Ashford, Kent

Journalists who fly all around the world asking questions about how large a car engine a politician has? Sounds like there is some hypocrisy there ¿. Actually, I don¿t really believe either the politicians or the journalists are being hypocritical. Both have to live with the rules and the laws that we have. Both are doing what they think is right to change it, in ways that they believe are for the better. Well, most politicians and journalists anyway, although we have to exclude the red tops and those self serving politicians out for personal profit - but they are more genuine politicians than self servers. Live according to the culture and rules that we have - try to change it from inside to meet your ideal format. That¿s just having an active and concerned outlook. Nothing more.
John Bailey, Gosport

If Mrs Merkel and President Barroso don't know roughly what their climate change proposals cost then they don't know whether they make any sense in the real world. Presumably they make political sense and that's the reason they're keen on them. I think politicians largely live in a fantasy world of purely political considerations. They're very tough, good at talking and manipulating people but they have a poor understanding of science, technology, business, etc.
Gilbert Hall, London

Belgium is itself split differently, Catholic-Conservative and Masonic-Liberal. But as a Protestant advising the Papal Nuncio in Belgium, I see that the Catholics themselves are split between Apostolics and Liberationists, with the former currently in the ascendent as the Pope is decidedly of their camp. However, to declare Rome as purely Aristotelian is to do them a great disservice, ignoring their adoratives such as Thomas à Kempis, who can give Kierkegaard a decent run for his money for asceticism. They have to cut their coat according to their cloth, and to that extent are pragmatic. But why not start closer to home, with another prominent Roman Catholic family?
Jel, Brussels

Barroso has nothing to apologise for, nor is he a hypocrite. He is in fact expressing a vital truth. You have failed to notice it because it is not in tune with the beliefs of your listeners/readers - a belief in individual responsibility (a good thing sometimes) taken to illogical extremes. Climate change will not be stopped by individual acts of enlightened self-denial. Nor should the enlightened bear the burden of adjustment on their own. It will be solved by adjusting costs ¿ via carbon taxes, trading carbon permits, whatever - so that the changes take place smoothly across an entire economy.
stephen kreppel, United Kingdom

I'm afraid that this is an old mistake: "...the Calvinist doctrine of the elect, saved spiritually and rewarded by God materially..." As a Calvinist Christian, I can confirm that while we believe that every good gift is from God (whether given to a Christian or a non-Christian), we don't believe that all Christians are rewarded with material wealth. Otherwise, we'd rather struggle with the idea of starving Christians in Africa, wouldn't we?
Philip Walker, York, UK

Having seen Mr Barroso speak passionately last year on his plans to reduce emissions Europe-wide, it is perhaps perturbing that he is not doing all he can himself to help. However, one should perhaps take into account his security considerations. Also, I would like to know what measures his detractors are taking to cut emissions, other than jet around Europe following Mr Barroso. No-one is perfect.
Matt Alder, Edinburgh

Nice try, but there's a much simpler explanation of varying attitudes to hypocrisy and corruption in Catholicism and Protestantism. Catholics believe in a personal God. He may have an ethical rule book in his pocket but thats really a matter for Him. If he brings them up at all it will be with a spirit of forgiveness that may leave a few loopholes for the 4x4 driver. Protestants however believe that God knocked up a set of rules at the dawn of time and then receded into the background. For them, interaction with God is effected coldly via this ethical system alone. For evidence look at the varying attitudes to tax codes between Italy, Spain, France, Sweden and Norway.
C Young, London, UK

I don't think that Barroso's 'hypocrisy' is a big deal. Personally I do all sorts of things that are not too good for the environment, as do most people. It's hard to motivate myself to do otherwise, given how little difference my individual choices make. But I would support changes in the law, and I would happily obey new laws, because they would actually make a difference. If Barroso were to fight against new laws so that he could keep his 4x4, that would be a problem. But I do not think he should be expected to comply with new laws before they are actually passed.
Neil Strickland, Sheffield, UK

In Mr. Barroso's possition, fair responses might have been "Under the proposals I would pay a fair price for my choice of car, compensating properly for the ecological cost". Arguing that it's nobody's business is in adequate from someone who is making laws that affect everyone else's business. But then I'm a North European Protestant, so perhaps I'm biased?
Simon Hibbs, Bexleyheath, Kent, UK.

If you look closely, you'll see Blair's always been a follower rather than a leader - it's in his mentality. He sees himself as a servant of the country, which would be a virtue in anyone with a supportive catholic faith in natural human frailty, but is extremely concerning with his nannying protestant "it's for your own good" mindset and belief in the infallibility of others who he sees as virtuous. Just observe his blind following of the Bush neo-con regime, and subservience to Europe. For his failings, Blair really wants to do good for people - his problem is he is too easily led by focus groups, statistics and advisors who don't necessarily see the reality of life in the real world UK. He has no true direction of his own.
Phil, Leeds, UK

Blair and Bush are typical post-Thatcher males and feel entirely at home in the service of a powerful woman, whether it be caving in to their political demands or just offering their services as masseur. Women, on the other hand, have undergone very different post-90s transformations and have different expectations. Once Segolene Royal arrives on Ms Merkel's territory the fur will really be flying.
Paul, London

I don't think it is a 'genuine cultural argument'. I think it is entirely reasonable to see if the legislators can obey the laws they are proposing. If they can't get rid of high-emission cars, what's the chance for us? And yes, if they pass laws banning adultery, I will want to know who he is sleeping with.
Andrew, Malvern, UK

Perhaps the hypocrisy is even greater. My view from living in a Catholic nation is that people do accept that "preachers" may stumble in practice. However, this does affect the status of their doctrine and people certainly do not respect the wisdom of the laws. Hence tax evasion, politics in the street, nepotism, corruption etc. (You can always confess, do penance and start over.)
Antonyn Poole, Barcelona

It might sound nice to claim that politicians to the south of some imaginary line don't consider they should act morally just so long as they obey the law, but such a clear distinction simply does not exist. Look at the case of Tony Blair stating he should not be expected to give up his exotic holidays in order to cut carbon emissions and you will see a close parallel with the example of Jose Manuel Barroso mentioned in the article. Please, there are already enough genuine differences to be found inside Europe - within countries and not just between them - we don't need to create any more through overgeneralization.
Richard, Geneva, Switzerland

"politicians - technical experts at designing the best possible laws" It would be entertaining and possibly instructive to see a map showing the parts of Europe where that proposition is widely believed.
Ian Kemmish, Biggleswade, UK

Resolutely catholic Belgium? A country that allows divorce, abortion, euthanasia, same sex marriages and gay adoptions? Who're you kidding?
James De Giorgio, Malta

I was stricken by some journalists' questions to Merkel & Baroso about how much it would cost to address the issue of climate change. But, I was even more stricken by the two leaders' inability to answer this question. The answer is simple: "When you are being rushed to hospital, half-dead, for an emergency operation, you simply don't ask how much the treatment will cost.
Thanos, Thessaloniki, Greece

Actually Aristotle's "Ethics" is focuses upon the cultivation of virtue by the practice of good behaviour, and no where is it suggested that law makers are exempt from this. Thus I am sure that Aristotle, pursuaded by the empirical evidence around the dangers of global warming, would have regarded driving around in a huge gas guzzler as unvirtuous in the extreme and quite unbecoming to a law maker. Plato, his teacher, went further and suggested that law makers should be allowed no material possesions at all!
M Johnson, London, UK

If he can afford gas for a 4x4 in Europe he can pay a carbon emissions tax on his vehicle too. If the EU instituted an emissions tax on vehicles which created subsidies for the development of and implementation of green technologies, it could work.
Sean, Houston, TX

A very interesting article Mark. The Catholic/Aristotle Protestant/Stoic seems very believable, if a little simplistic. It certainly matches my experience (or is it prejudice?). I often comment that one of the great losses to our society in recent years is that we have turned against hypocracy. I believe that it is a great social necessity. Why? Well, we all fall short of our ideals. To continue to preach those ideals in the face of our failures is branded hypocracy. This is no longer acceptible so we relax our ideals. Of course, we tend to fall short of our ideals and ... This is particularly important with rearing children who must rebel. I would prefer that they rebel TO where I really am rather than FROM that position, especially if this is repeated with their children. Thanks for a stimulating article. Danny
Danny , Liverpool

"If we start now creating the idea that for every person we establish a certificate of good behaviour there is a risk that tomorrow it is not only ecological behaviour, it is family behaviour, sexual behaviour." What utter tosh from Manuel Barosso. There are two main points of "utter toshness" here" : 1 - if piece of legislation is good enough for those at the bottom of the heap, or society at large, it is good enough for those at the top - it is called leading by example 2- he deliberately confuses the issue by mixing important environmental legislation with nonsense about social interference. He should know better... but then, he is a politician
Graeme Morpeth, Yokohama, Japan

This climate hysteria is just like the "acid rain "fade in the 1970's The eco terrorist will draw a lot of money and ad the end it's very questionable if it has done any good. But lots of money was paid by us. More important is to curb the world population but I don't think anybody wants to talk about that, they are vote's in the making!
a.j. van der Veen, amsterdam, Holland

There is another distinction quite popular among Greeks, Aristotle versus Epikouros. Aristotle while tudoring Alexander the Great introduced the concept of the "Healing Lie" claiming that deep knowledge should be reserved for an elit of few rulers or wise people and that when the common people are in unrest this elit can always distract them by lies that bring social peace. Epikouros on the contrary believed that knowledge is a gift to be spread, shared and infused in society at any cost. This is the reason why Aristotle became the preferred philosopher of almost all Christian dogmas whereas Epikouros is the favored of all agnostics. This is also the reason why Epikouros is less known than see no one can beat the marketing of the religion, they are in this business for thousands of year.
S. Hadzistavros, Thessaloniki-Greece

Thank you S. Hadzistavros for recognising that not ALL (so-called) Christian dogmas preferred Aristotlean 'Healing lie' philosophy to Epikourosean contrasting belief. In fact, Biblical dogma in this respect is with Epikouros, not Aristotle, and reveals that God's gifts are for all who will receive them, to be spread worldwide and shared and to infuse society. The tradgedy is that so many Christian leaders & people have either failed to understand it or have done so and behaved hypocritically. Jesus clearly voiced that about the religious leaders in his days on earth.
Brian Mallalieu, Youlgrave

If Mr Barroso were elected, he couldn't afford to scoff.
Christopher Bridge, Adelaide, Australia

"The hacks were just doing their job" The real hypocrisy is between what the news media does and the mantle of self-righteousness it cloaks itself in.
John Kantor, St. Petersburg, FL, USA

"The cost of climate action": I've always imagined money as an exchange system. I see it as a way to exchange work for the things we need. By continuing to pollute we make the world we desire to live in much less available. It becomes much more costly in work terms to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. The result of lessening our environmental impact would seem to be to make the lifestyle we would like less difficult to obtain. Hence it saves us work/money. I think then that I can see the politicians confusion when asked to estimate how much environmental policy will cost.
Mac, Detroit, US

The average UK car journey is 7 miles and catalytic converters only work properly when hot enough after about 10 miles so they are a waste of resources and money but nobody protests about that. However, an individual who drives an Audi "Q7 main battle tank" is denounced as an eco criminal but although he is selfish, his "sin" will not end the world. Do I detect reason being smothered under a smell of hypocracy driven by the human traits of prejudice and jealousy?
Les Tonge, Leeds, UK

The whole process utilising taxation to reduce environmental impact is a nonsense. Whether or not one agrees with the "democratic" issues, it is plain that the only viable solution is to *ban* such vehicles, and any other practise that causes provably sufficient damage to the environment. Simply "paying" to pollute does not change the fact that one is still polluting!
Rutilus Faber, Frankfurt, Germany

Juha Sihvola hardly invented the wheel, here. I hope he did mention the obvious inspiration for his argument, Max Weber's classic "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism"?
Robert Kowalenko, London

I agree with the chap who says hypocisy is basically unavoidable in society - especially in any kind of public speech. Consider what things would be like if everyone spoke nothing but the hard truth at all times - no doubt society would edge towards collapse. Of course Truth is not a simple black and white affair but then again insincerity is surely not a virtue. It's just another unsolvable problem to add to the growing list.
Richard, Sheffield, UK

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