4 July 2017

At a plenary session in Strasburg to review the Maltese Presidency (which has recently finished), Commission President Mr Juncker took to the floor to complain that the European Parliament was “ridiculous, very ridiculous”. He then criticised the fact that only around 30 of the 751 MEPs had turned up for the session, saying that the Parliament was not “serious”. Juncker also noted that if it had been Mrs Merkel, rather than Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, we would have “a full house”.

Having now switched to English – a language which, incidentally, Mr Juncker had sought to claim was “losing importance” – the Commission President got into his stride, bashing his desk microphone as he gesticulated, repeating his point that the Parliament is “totally ridiculous”.

The President of the Parliament sought to reprimand Mr Juncker in Italian and then French, at which point Mr Juncker – somewhat bizarrely – reached for his headphones to listen for a simultaneous translation. Ignoring Mr Tajani’s protestations that “we are not ridiculous”, Juncker declared “I will never again attend a meeting of this kind” and paid a somewhat hesitating tribute to the Maltese Government.

It is of course possible that Mr Juncker was tired and emotional but nonetheless the spat reminds us of several important points:

  1. Juncker is in many ways correct – the European Parliament is widely seen as ridiculous. Yet such criticisms are more often made by so-called populist and Eurosceptic MEPs, for whom the European Parliament has (ironically) provided a platform. It’s quite something for the EU institutions to break into such open conflict. And his comments will surely give succour to Eurosceptics across the Continent.
  2. The Commission has very little respect for the Parliament. So little in fact that the EU’s Chief Bureaucrat feels able to denounce loudly elected politicians. Indeed, the only directly-elected element within the EU. Could we imagine a British minister or Permanent Secretary criticising Parliament in this way?  Both Mr Juncker and Mr Tajani noted that the Commission is “responsible” to the Parliament, which makes the outburst all the more extraordinary.
  3.  Juncker is also right to argue that more MEPs would have turned up to see Mrs Merkel or indeed Mr Macron. Yes, but this goes to the core of a basic problem with the current set-up of the EU and indeed with the rotating presidency system of the Council of the European Union –  power dynamics are just that: power dynamics. Malta simply isn’t as powerful as Germany.
  4. The European Parliament is basically a talking shop of relatively little importance. It doesn’t even properly scrutinise EU expenditure. Some have tried to claim that the real power in Parliament is in the Committees determining legislation. Well, yes but only to a point. The European Parliament has significant power over details of legislation, but on the big picture questions it’s far less influential.
  5. The structural flaws which were present in the Union from the very beginning (and clearly outlined by writers such as Larry Siedentop in his “Democracy in Europe”) remain fundamentally unresolved. How can the Commission be seriously accountable to an institution which it itself considers as ridiculous?

What does this all mean for Brexit?

At one level, not that much. Things are much as they were – it’s just that inter-institutional conflict has rather unusually spilled over into the open. But it should remind us that, despite the best attempts of Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament simply is not a major locus of power and it won’t matter that much in determining Brexit. Nonetheless, Mr Juncker is right that the Parliament will be full for what it considers big, important questions – and Brexit will be one of those. So expect fiery debates on the terms of the deal, and on the UK’s exit. They will of course though have a take it or leave it vote on the final deal. Still, it’s hard to imagine the European Parliament saying ‘leave it’ if the other institutions are in favour.

Mr Tajani’s somewhat desperate cry that “we are not ridiculous” rather calls to mind a Margaret Thatcher quote on being a lady. If you have to protest that you’re not ridiculous…