It was this freedom that van Gogh was testing, it was this freedom that Jyllands-Posten is testing, and it is this freedom that the Dutch foreign minister will be compromising when he travels this week to the Middle East alongside Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, for talks aimed at reducing the tension over the cartoons, a pointless and humiliating exercise that can only reinforce the dangerous impression held by many of the region's Muslims that Europe's governments somehow control Europe's newspapers and can thus be blamed for their contents.
The fact that such a mission is unlikely to take much account of the opinions of Dutch voters should surprise nobody. Europe's leaders have long tended to prefer the top-down and the technocratic to the views of electorates they see as atavistic, irrational, and prone to disturbing nationalist enthusiasms. This is why they had the arrogance to prescribe multiculturalism as an appropriate response to mass immigration, an idea of remarkable stupidity that goes a long way toward explaining the predicament in which Europe now finds itself.
Of course, we don't yet know what this delegation to the Middle East will be saying, but comments made in an interview with the London Daily Telegraph by the EU's sinisterly named Commissioner for Freedom, Security and Justice reveal some clues. Saying that millions of Muslims felt "humiliated" by the cartoons, and referring to a supposed "real problem" faced by the EU in reconciling freedom of expression with freedom of religion (actually, there's no "problem" at all, unless fanatics choose to make one), he suggested that the press should adopt a voluntary code of conduct. By agreeing to this "the press will give the Muslim world the message: we are aware of the consequences of exercising the right of free expression, we can and we are ready to self-regulate that right." Why the "Muslim world" outside Europe, much of which is represented by dictatorships, mullah-states and kleptocracies, should have any say in the contents of the continent's supposedly free press was not discussed.
In fairness it should be mentioned that the commissioner, Franco Frattini, subsequently put out a vague, ambiguous, and confusing press release purportedly intended to clarify his remarks, but once you have cut through the waffle, checked out the full text of the original interview, and grasped the fact that he was already talking about some sort of code before the current crisis, the commissioner's intentions become all too clear. One way or another, he wants the press muzzled...
After the events of these last days, we can be sure that other acts of censorship or self-censorship will pass insidiously and in silence, unnoticed, un-mourned, or, at best, explained away as a gesture of that "respect" that Europe's elites are now so eager to proclaim.
And as for the Danes, they must be feeling very, very alone. The notion of European solidarity has been revealed as the myth it always was. Denmark, and its tradition of free speech, has been left to twist in the wind, trashed, abused, and betrayed. An article published in Jyllands-Posten (yes, them again) on Friday revealed clear frustration over the way that the country is being treated. It's in Danish only, but one phrase ("Ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed. Der er intet men.") stands out, and it deserves to be translated and repeated again, and again, and again: "Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but."
Fine words. Is anyone listening?