It was a document meant to promote inclusion in Europe that ended up stoking divisions across the Continent.

The inside story of how previously little-known European Commission guidelines on inclusive language sparked a political firestorm that led to their abrupt withdrawal and public humiliation for the commissioner responsible is a tale of culture wars and bureaucratic blunders.

The 30-page handbook set out gender-neutral forms of address and other phrases meant to ensure no European felt excluded from EU communications. It attracted little attention on its publication in October, although European Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli, a Maltese socialist, tried to give it some fanfare on Twitter, posing with the document and declaring she was “proud” to launch it.

But controversy erupted after Italian newspaper Il Giornale published a story on the document on Sunday, under the headline, “In Europe, it is forbidden to say ‘Christmas’ and even to call oneself Maria.”

That was, at the very least, an exaggeration. But amid Vatican criticism and accusations from far-right and conservative politicians that the EU was trying to cancel Christmas and attack Christianity, an “outraged” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen — a German Christian Democrat — ordered Dalli to pull the document, according to officials.

The debacle raised questions about the political setup at the Commission, which is meant to scour documents ahead of publication with the aim of spotting and defusing controversies.

The document had not been approved by von der Leyen, her cabinet of close aides or the College of Commissioners, even though its contents were obviously highly politically sensitive, officials said.

A senior Commission official said the intention behind the document was important but the project had been badly executed, going too far and using poor examples to make its points.

“The cabinet was not involved, it was not a College decision, [it was] nothing on behalf of the whole Commission,” the senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. “It’s not state-of-the-art communication, this can’t be our benchmark.”

Dalli was forced into an embarrassing and unusually public U-turn on Tuesday, issuing a statement in which she had to confess her own work was not up to scratch.

“It is not a mature document and does not meet all Commission quality standards,” she said. “The guidelines clearly need more work. I therefore withdraw the guidelines and will work further on this document.”

In a sign of how divisive the document became, even within the EU executive, Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas opened a news conference on migration on Wednesday with a mocking reference to the guidelines. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” the Greek conservative said, before pointedly adding that he hoped the Commission could still use the term.

Even after the document was withdrawn, controversy raged on. On Friday, Eric Ciotti, one of two finalists to be the conservative nominee in France’s presidential election, demanded von der Leyen fire Dalli over the affair.

There was no sign von der Leyen would make any moves in that direction. But the episode has been highly bruising for Dalli, particularly as von der Leyen told her on her appointment in 2019 to “strengthen Europe’s commitment to inclusion and equality in all of its senses, irrespective of sex, racial or ethnic origin, age, disability, sexual orientation or religious belief.” Dalli declined to comment for this article.

But the senior Commission official said the problem was not the purpose of the guidelines. “The aim of this document is an important one, we have millions of citizens who would appreciate having more neutral language, but we don’t want to hide that we are celebrating Christmas,” the official said.

Backlash to backlash

Meanwhile, the Commission also faced a backlash from progressives, who accused the EU executive of falling into a far-right trap and undermining attempts at fostering a more inclusive European Union.

The general thrust of the document would be considered uncontroversial in many countries and some of the language it prescribed is commonly used by public authorities and private corporations around the world.

But the format of the document and some of the examples left the Commission open to the charge of ordering officials to deny the Continent’s traditions and Christian heritage.

It included a table of phrases with headings such as “avoid” and “do this instead.”

“Avoid assuming that everyone is Christian,” the document advised. It listed “Christmas time can be stressful,” as a phrase to avoid. Under “do this instead,” it suggested phrases such as “holiday times can be stressful” and “for those celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah.”

It also told officials to use the phrases “first name,” “forename” or “given name,” rather than “Christian name” and to avoid “names that are typically from one religion” in examples and anecdotes.

It advised avoiding phrases such as “Maria and John are an international couple” and instead using the likes of “Malika and Julio are an international couple.”

Cyrus Engerer, a Maltese socialist MEP, accused right-wing and far-right politicians of spreading fake statements about the document and defended the spirit of the guidelines.

“Inclusive language is one that is sensitive to diversity and that empathizes with the diverse audience one might have,” he declared.

He admitted the document was “imperfect” but defended Dalli, his compatriot and party colleague. He said he hoped an updated version of the guidelines would help encourage inclusive communication.

“I support Ms. Dalli in her endeavor to raise more awareness and look forward to a document that could pertain to all institutions, simply to raise awareness,” Engerer said.

Danish liberal MEP Karen Melchior accused the Commission of bowing to pressure from the far right but also said it needed to be smart about how it handles such guidelines.

“Dalli should not have fallen into this trick … we should be better than this,” she said. “It has nothing to do with reality but [there are] clips and disinformation online, there are now stories online that will be used to say that the EU is anti-Christian.”

German Green MEP Hannah Neumann said it should not be controversial to celebrate the holidays of different communities.

“The world of today cannot have enough holidays and reasons to (at least virtually) meet family and friends and celebrate that we are alive and healthy,” Neumann said in a text message, noting people in her own diverse Berlin neighborhood congratulated each other on a wide range of holidays.

She said the Commission had to be ready to withstand attacks for pursuing inclusive policies. “If you want diversity, prepare for outbursts of the far right,” Neumann said.

There was, at least, one small consolation for Dalli. Heidi Hautala, a vice president of the European Parliament, said the debate over the document had prompted her to look again at the Parliament’s own guidelines on inclusive communication, which focused mainly on gender neutrality, and consider whether they should be expanded.

 “I would like to have an open discussion at the Parliament on this topic, and whether the current guidelines from 2018 are sufficient,” said Hautala, a Finnish Green who is a member of the Parliament’s Working Group on Information and Communication Policy.