“The European Parliament is ridiculous. Very ridiculous. I welcome those of you who made the effort to come to the chamber. But the fact that only around 30 MEPs have shown up for this debate amply demonstrates that this parliament is not serious.”
A visibly angry Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, took aim at absentee deputies on Tuesday morning during a session held to take stock of Malta’s six-month EU presidency.
At the time of Juncker’s outburst, fewer than 5% of the chamber’s 751 seats in Strasbourg had someone sitting in them. Speaking in front of Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, Juncker hinted that MEPs were belittling the EU’s smallest member.
Low attendance at plenary sessions is a regular occurrence
“If Mr Muscat were Mrs Merkel, which is hard to imagine, or Mr Macron, which is easier to imagine, we would have a full house,” he said in derisive tones, beginning his sentence in French and ending it in English for greater emphasis.
His reaction drew an immediate response. In an unusual public clash between top EU representatives, the president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani of Italy, admonished Juncker for speaking in such a harsh tone.
“I ask you, Mr President, to express yourself in a more respectful way. You may criticize the Parliament, but it is not up to the Commission to control Parliament, rather the other way around,” he said to a round of applause.
Then Juncker hit back.
“There are very few members in the plenary to control the Commission. You are ridiculous,” he insisted. “I will never again, I will never again attend a meeting of this kind. The Commission is under the control of Parliament, but the parliament has to respect even the presidencies of smaller countries, which the parliament is not doing.”
Later, both leaders held a private meeting at which Juncker apologized for his choice of words.
A recurring image
Low attendance at plenary sessions is a regular occurrence. Some deputies blame it on the multiple committee meetings and working groups scheduled at overlapping times.
“The only solution is to stop scheduling meetings during session times; that would prevent this type of image,” said the Spanish Socialist eurodeputy Ramón Jáuregui, who said he was not at the session because he was attending a meeting at the time.
“I understand Juncker, although I don’t think he should have said it the way he said it, but I understand that the image of a relevant debate in parliament with so few members in the room is detrimental to the parliament itself,” added fellow socialist Enrique Guerrero, who has been a MEP since 2009.
I understand that the image of a debate with so few members in the room is detrimental
Socialist MEP Enrique Guerrero
Guerrero also pointed to better agenda-setting as a solution. But he noted that the Tuesday session was to assess an ended presidency, not to deal with future issues, and that this fact may have also played a role in the noticeable absenteeism.
By contrast, there was a full house to hear Matteo Renzi in 2014, when he had just been appointed prime minister of Italy, and more recently to hear António Guterres, the new secretary general of the United Nations.
English version by Susana Urra.