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19th Jan 2020

MEPs look for ways to battle plenary non-attendance

  • Empty seats during discussions are an embarrassment to the newly-powerful parliament (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Parliament is looking into ways of boosting plenary attendance 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.

The political factions agreed Wednesday (15 September) to establish a taskforce to see if they can make embarrassing pan-angle camera shots of rows of empty seats during high-level debates a thing of the past.

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The group is to be headed by Austrian Socialist MEP Hannes Swoboda and is due to present its proposals before the end of the year.

While a near-empty chamber during discussions is not a new phenomenon, and is a treatment meted out to EU commissioners and foreign dignitaries alike, parliament's awareness of the matter has become more acute since the assembly gained strong new co-legislative powers late last year.

According to Mr Swoboda, the group will focus on attracting the 736 deputies to plenary through raising the quality of the debate but also through trying to introduce a strong-arming tactic within each of the political groups.

"My personal view is that this should primarily be about raising the interest of members because the debates are interesting and more political," he told this website adding "and not because they get money or they would lose money if they don't come."

Fining MEPs for non-attendance was mooted ahead of a the first ever 'State of the Union' address by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on 7 September. But the idea was hastily dropped after MEPs denounced its "Stalinist" overtones.

"We are all human beings and therefore we need the presidents of the political groups, the leaders of the national delegations to put some pressure on members to come," said Mr Swoboda.

One possible route of persuasion could be that deputies who fail to attend debates lose their speaking rights in other debates. The Austrian politician, now in his fifteenth year as an MEP, also says that group leaders should show solidarity with backbenchers by attending debates even if they are not speaking themselves.

Other "tough power" tactics could be to not give the floor to MEPs who simply come in at the tail-end of a debate in order to speak in freer catch-the-eye part of the discussion.

Parliament rules on speaking time are strict and regulated. Group leaders speak first and always in the order of the size of the faction. Some free discussion is only allowed at the end of the debate. While it is a fair way of dividing the time it does not always make for the most lively exchanges.

UK liberal MEP Baroness Sarah Ludford admitted earlier this month that it can be "boring" for MEPs lower down the group ranking and that deputies are often just as well off following debates on TV in their offices

However, both she and Mr Swoboda say non-attendance is not due to sloth.

"We are not lazy," says Mr Swoboda, "There are so many meetings to go to. Lobbyists, government officials, ministers, they all come to Strasbourg to meet us."

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