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16th Nov 2018

Fewer MEPs than visitors turn up for Estonian PM

  • Estonian prime minister Jueri Ratas spoke in front of an almost empty room (Photo: European Parliament)

Fewer than seven percent of MEPs showed up on Tuesday morning (16 January) for a debate with Estonian prime minister Jueri Ratas to discuss his country's handling of its six-month rotating EU presidency.

However - unlike at the previous such debate with Ratas' Maltese colleague Joseph Muscat - European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker this time made no reference to the poor attendance.

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  • The debate on the Estonian presidency was announced well in advance (Photo: Peter Teffer)

EUobserver counted the number of MEPs in the plenary hall in Strasbourg at several points during the debate with Ratas.

At the start of the debate, just a few minutes after 9am, there were 30 MEPs present. The European Parliament has 751 members, including the president.

Ratas made an 11-minute speech about what he saw as the successes of his country's presidency, which was in charge of the agenda of ministerial meetings and finding compromises on legislative files.

When Ratas was almost done, some 40 MEPs were present. The number increased to no more 50 – 6.7 percent – during Juncker's speech, and remained at around that level during the statements by seven of the MEPs.

In fact, there were more visiting students watching the debate from the gallery than MEPs present.

The combined strength of representatives from the commission and the Council of the EU – on behalf of national governments – also outnumbered MEPs.

'Not the most fascinating debate'

There is a reason why MEP interest in debates about outgoing presidencies is low, said Belgian Green MEP Philippe Lamberts.

"These are not the most fascinating debates, and maybe this is not the place where we should devote the most attention," said Lamberts at a press conference on Tuesday.

"We are just looking back towards past presidencies, and rejoicing about successes or failures. These are of course not the most breathtaking debates that you can have," he said.

A large part of Ratas' speech was indeed a rehashing of accomplishments and congratulations to MEPs that cooperated with the presidency.

'Ridiculous' parliament

Nevertheless, low attendance was the reason Juncker had an angry spat with the parliament six months ago.

In July 2017, the parliament debate with Maltese PM Muscat – EU president before Estonia – was also poorly attended.

Juncker took the floor in front of, according to his count, just 30 MEPs.

"The European parliament is ridiculous, very ridiculous," said Juncker in front of the almost empty room.

"I will never again attend a meeting of this kind," he noted last year, although his presence on Tuesday showed that he had changed his mind on that promise.

In July, Juncker had said that if, instead of Muscat, it had been the leader of Germany or France, the EU's two biggest member states, the plenary seats would all be filled.

In terms of population, Malta is the smallest country of the EU with just over 400,000, while Juncker's native Luxembourg is the second-smallest.

Estonia is only slightly bigger, with a population of 1.3 million.

"Smaller countries make for better presidencies," Juncker said on Tuesday.

Blame France

Kathleen Van Brempt, Belgian MEP for the centre-left Socialist & Democrats, acknowledged that more MEPs should have showed up, but blamed the busy schedule of MEPs.

"In Strasbourg, having these meetings from the morning to the late evening, it's impossible for all of us to be there. We have other meetings" she said.

Van Brempt said a large part can be blamed on the fact that the parliament is legally obliged to move from Brussels to Strasbourg twelve times a year – a fact which MEPs cannot change.

France has defended the Strasbourg sessions, and has a veto against changing the treaty to have a single seat for the EU parliament.

"If we would be a parliament with one seat, then every week we would have group meetings, committee meetings, and we would have a plenary every week," said Van Brempt.

"Then you can have every week an important debate on what is at stake at that moment, and then plenary debates on important legislative files," she added.

Why not combine debates?

Some said that the tradition of having a debate with the leader of the outgoing presidency should change.

"One might legitimately ask the question whether it makes sense to keep these debates," said Greens co-president Lamberts, but added there is a value in having a chance to question a government leader.

The leader of the far left group GUE/NGL, Gabi Zimmer, also said in a press conference on Tuesday that something needed to change.

She proposed that the debate on the outgoing presidency and the one on the incoming presidency should be combined.

On Wednesday, the parliament will have a discussion with Boyko Borisov, the prime minister of Bulgaria, which on 1 January has taken over the helm from Estonia.

The European People's Party, the biggest group of the parliament, did not want to comment on why so few of its members attended the debate. The Liberal group and the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jan Krelina, spokesman for the European Conservatives and Reformists, the third-largest group, said that MEPs are "free to choose" whether to watch the debate in the room or follow it on their TV screens in their offices.

"From my experience, the TVs are always on in MEPs' offices, but it is quite difficult for me to comment on individual members' decision to follow certain debate from their offices," said Krelina.

No MEP spoke on behalf of the anti-EU group Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), which, a spokesman explained, was because the appointed speaker had become ill.

"Due to other agenda issues several MEPs had other parliamentary business to attend to," said Tom Vandendriessche on behalf of the ENF.

Low attendance of plenary sessions is a problem that has existed for years. In 2010, the parliament put in place a working group to try and tackle the problem.

MEPs look for ways to battle plenary non-attendance

The European Parliament is looking into ways of boosting plenary attendance during debates but is set to stay clear of fining absent deputies after a brief attempt to go down this path earlier this month was widely ridiculed.

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