The story is easy to tell. The prime minister had a loyal, but sometimes prickly, supporter of his government. He wanted to reward him for his services in a suitable but not too elevated place. He decided to move him out of Rome to Brussels. Here the prime minister had a political friend, who had just been chosen, with his help, to head the European team, a position left vacant by the prime ministers arch rival, now returning home.
Then out of the blue the loyal but prickly supporter began to warm to his new role. He found that people listened to him, which they had never done at home. He began to say what he thought about people who dont fit into his world view. He disapproved of those who did not match his neat family portrait: father (male), who supports the family, mother (female) who stays at home to tend the hearth, and numerous delightful, hard-working children who never deviate from their sound Christian, preferably Roman Catholic, roots. Woe betide mothers who work, mothers without husbands, gays and lesbians, transsexuals, bisexuals, asexuals and immigrants. All this riff-raff, he claimed, was shaking the very foundations of our European home.
What was it he said? Did he really say that? Surely not. No, indeed, he was quoted out of context. Irresponsible journalists have distorted the truth yet again.
The plot thickened.
Enter members of the European parliament, usually a sleepy, useless bunch. Shaken from lethargy they sprang to the defence of people who were different. How could this tactless, politically-incorrect man be entrusted with our human rights, they cried?
Enter important prelates from the Holy See, robes flowing. They took up the mantras of this brave and noble knight, their new sword-bearer for the once-proud Christian culture, now crumbling at their feet. He will save the Church and the family, he will uphold the Christian roots of European culture against the Infidel, he will stop the terminal decay, they proclaimed.
Re-enter the prime minister, whose scorn for the sleepy European parliament was well known. He has my full support; we will not be threatened by the parliamentary rabble that is plotting my demise, he thundered.
Enter prime ministers from other countries who feared an independent parliament over which they had no control. Enter still others who feared their not-too-brilliant protgs might also fall prey to parliamentary scrutiny when their turn came.
Enter the head of the new European Commission, stumbling under the weight of political favours he had to return, only to exit at great speed to rethink the plot and reshuffle the cast of characters.
And suddenly the audience, normally bored by every scene of the endless European drama, found a gripping soap opera unravelling before its eyes.
Who would ever have thought that Rocco Buttiglione, the unprepossessing, unexciting, minor Italian politician, with a CV that would hardly qualify him to teach religion in an elementary school these days, would cause such a stir? Perhaps even he was a bit surprised, although seemingly delighted, to have hit the front pages of the world press, to be talked about (how do you pronounce his name?) on endless radio shows and television programmes across the continent and beyond. Who could possibly have imagined that thanks to Rocco (how do you pronounce that glione sound again?) the European Union (yawn, yawn) would become exciting news? But stir the European pot he did.
The Buttiglione affair couldnt have come at a better moment, just as Europes new constitution was about to be signed in Rome. The document was heralded by its writers as the way forward for a new and better-run Europe. Its signing was accompanied by the usual pomp that surrounds such historic moments. The centre of Rome, the city that saw the signing of the unions original document in 1957, was brought to a standstill to the chagrin of its inhabitants who had more urgent things to do. A quick photo opportunity, a quick flourish with a fancy pen and the signatories went off to a lavish lunch and then flew home, leaving the city to pick itself up and carry on its way. Like all constitutions, the intricacies of its wording meant precious little to the inhabitants of Rome or to voters across the continent, many of whom are going to have to decide by popular referendum whether they want it or not in the next couple of years.
Meanwhile the Buttiglione affair had caught the imagination, and illustrated far better than the constitution the checks and balances within the European Union.
The fact that the European parliament forced the re-examination of the fitness of Buttiglione for the job of commissioner of justice, freedom and security has brought that previously remote body into the mainstream of political debate. Maybe it has now hit home to ordinary voters that the elections to that institution in Strasbourg do matter.
It may also have brought home to prime ministers that they can no longer push off their loyal, but sometimes inadequate supporters to Brussels to govern Europe as though it didnt matter.
Perhaps it has indicated to prime ministers that they are accountable to an independent body and can be called to account. This can only be beneficial in an age when business in national parliaments is increasingly dominated and managed by prime ministers and their cabinets, and where ordinary members have less and less power over the running of events.
It may also have brought home to the head commissioner that it is not possible to select jobs for ministers (commissioners) as a way of repaying prime ministers to whom he is beholden for his job.
In the end Buttiglione offered himself up as a scapegoat, to use his phrase, leaving his prime minister the politically-delicate job of filling the vacant post. But he has nevertheless managed to do Europe a favour, perhaps not in the way he intended, but a favour nonetheless. If he has proved that what happens in Brussels and Strasbourg does matter then, hurray for Rocco the Intrepid.