An internal European commission document advising officials to use inclusive language such as “holiday season” rather than Christmas and avoid terms such as “man-made” has been withdrawn after an outcry from rightwing politicians.
The EU executive’s volte-face over the guidelines, launched by the commissioner for equality, Helena Dalli, at the end of October, was prompted by an article in the Italian tabloid Il Giornale which claimed it amounted to an attempt to “cancel Christmas”.
A series of politicians on the right, including the former president of the European parliament Antonio Tajani, a member of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, subsequently jumped on the issue to voice their opposition to the “absurd” advice.
“Inclusion does not mean denying the Christian roots of [the EU]”, Tajani tweeted.
In response, Dalli, who had tweeted a picture of herself with the guidelines on 26 October, along with comments speaking of her pride in launching the document, issued an apologetic statement.
She said: “My initiative to draft guidelines as an internal document for communication by commission staff in their duties was intended to achieve an important aim: to illustrate the diversity of European culture and showcase the inclusive nature of the European commission towards all walks of life and beliefs of European citizens.
“However, the version of the guidelines published does not adequately serve this purpose. It is not a mature document and does not meet all commission quality standards. The guidelines clearly need more work. I therefore withdraw the guidelines and will work further on this document.”
The European commission, along with other EU institutions, has long been criticised for the lack of diversity among its staff. There are no non-white commissioners. As part of an update of the language to be used by its staff, the commission had asked officials to be more sensitive in their communications.
Officials working with the 27-strong commission college, led by Ursula von der Leyen, were advised to avoid assuming that everyone is Christian, white and married. Rather than refer to Christmas, officials should say “the holiday season”, the document suggested.
Officials were advised to avoid gender-specific pronouns and gendered words and phrases such as “chairman”, “ladies and gentleman” or “man-made”.
It was suggested that officials ask people what their pronouns are and to be careful using terms such as “gay” and “lesbians” as a noun. “Transgender, bi or intersex are not nouns.” … “Say trans people, gay person, etc or refer to the person explicitly,” it was suggested.
Following Dalli’s U-turn, Tajani tweeted that the rethink was a victory for common sense. He was joined in celebrating the move by the former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, who tweeted: “It was an absurd and wrong document. A community is not afraid of its roots. And cultural identity is a value, not a threat.”
Sophie in ’t Veld, a liberal Dutch MEP, said she was concerned by the commission’s sudden retreat on the issue. She said: “Commissioner Dalli deserves praise for having the courage to address the issue, be it in a somewhat clumsy way.
“The concerted misinformation and attacks on her by the far right and the subsequent response to these by the commission are concerning. We need to recognise that Europe and its institutions represent everyone. The institutions should be strictly neutral: let’s not forget the majority of Europeans are not religious.”