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Since the election on June 8th in the UK returned a hung parliament, it's often said that power has flowed from Downing Street to the Palace of Westminster. Over in Brussels few would argue that the European Parliament is the real seat of power. This morning an extraordinary spat between the President of the Commission and President of the Parliament underlined the subordinate status of the Parliament, and the tensions between the EU institutions.
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:
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…