Latter Day Taint?

Evidence suggests that Mitt Romney's religion is less important to voters than it is to reporters.

As Mitt Romney continues his sputtering but probably inevitable progress towards the Republican nomination, his Mormonism continues to provide a source of endless fascination for commentators, if not for the majority of actual voters. It is widely seen as the most interesting thing about him -- more interesting even than his vast wealth, modest tax bill or centrist record as governor of Massachusetts.

The latter, indeed, may count against him in the remaining primaries more than his religious affiliation which, considering the torrent of media speculation, has been mentioned very little during the campaign by the major candidates. Evangelical votes may have cost him South Carolina. Mormon votes undoubtedly boosted him in Nevada. But Romney's opponents on the religious right are (publicly at least) far more troubled by his perceived liberalism than by his membership of a minority faith.

Indeed, while the Evangelical wing of the Republican party always makes for great copy, its home-grown candidates have flopped badly in the primaries. Michele Bachmann and, perhaps more surprisingly, Rick Perry proved to have limited voter-appeal. In their search for a Stop Romney candidate, Christian conservatives have turned to two Catholics, one of whom (Newt Gingrich) has less than compelling religious credentials. The other, Rick Santorum, has now widely been written off, although he is said to be doing well in Minnesota. Most Evangelicals prefer him to Romney, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't prefer Romney to Obama.

A generation or two ago, the thought of Evangelical Protestants lining up behind a Catholic candidate would have seemed as unimaginable as their support for a Mormon might today. There is some evidence of resistance among some such voters to the idea of a Mormon president. A survey last year showed that 47 per cent of white evangelical Protestants would be somewhat or very comfortable with a Mormon in the White House -- more than the 42 per cent of the general population who expressed a similar sentiment, but not dramatically more. And Mormons were viewed favourably by two thirds of the public, including by two thirds of Protestant evangelicals.

Mormons themselves, meanwhile, have mixed feelings about the relentless focus on their religion.

Romney's major problem with such voters is his image as a Massachusetts liberal. In the run up to the South Carolina primary, a leading Southern Baptist, Richard Land, even criticised him for being "not Mormon enough", contrasting his previously liberal stances on issues such as abortion or gay marriage with the conservative line generally taken by the Latter Day Saints. He seems to have taken the hint, launching a charm offensive aimed especially at Catholics. Last night, for example, he lambasted new federal regulations requiring that employee healthcare plans offered by hospitals, universities and other institutions include provision for contraceptives and morning-after pills.

Responding to Catholic fears that the rules would apply to them, Romney described the proposals as "a violation of conscience". "We must have a president who is willing to protect America's first right: our right to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience," he said. Similarly, earlier this week he urged supporters to sign a petition condemning "the Obama administration's attacks on religious liberty."

As ever with Romney, there's a subtlety in his choice of words: the reference to "the dictates of our own conscience" might have been aimed at those suspicious of his own belief-system. And his appeal to the First Amendment points to his continuing desire to preserve the separation of his own religious and political spheres. The overriding sense, though, is of someone determined to say whatever it takes to win the nomination. The question remains whether he can do so while saying little enough to stand a chance in November's general election.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.