Friday

18th Jan 2019

Analysis

The EU parliament's big, fat Greek moment

  • Verhofstadt went viral (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

The European Parliament came into its own this week, hosting a passionate debate on the biggest crisis the EU has faced since it was founded.

For long, the parliament has battled with the chip on its shoulder, priding itself as the most democratic of the EU institutions, but undermined by low voter turnout and a sense that the real heart-of-the-matter debates happen in national parliaments.

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  • It did get boring too (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

They still do in some way.

After all, the European Parliament has no say on the Greek debate. It will not vote on whether to open bailout negotiations with the country. It will not vote on the outcome of any deal. And on this issue, it is nowhere near the purse-strings.

But this week it showed what it can do: It can gather several of the protagonists of this European problem into one chamber and have a proper debate.

On Wednesday morning (8 July), straight after a summit where the odds on Greece exiting the euro seemed to shorten, Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, took their seats in the Strasbourg plenary.

The house was full. The galleries too.

It was time to hear from Tsipras in a European setting. Not before a Greek parliament where he has to play to a domestic audience. Not in a snatched press conference late at night after yet another summit. And not through a spokesperson. Or in 140 characters via Twitter.

It was time to ask many of the questions, make many of the points, that have been swirling around the echo chamber that makes up the Berlin-Brussels-twittersphere axis.

MEPs confronted Tsipras at the highest point in the Greece crisis since his left-wing government came to power in January.

The debate came three days after a referendum on which Greek voters, ostensibly at least, rejected further austerity. But a referendum on which the question was unclear and the implications of the answer unclearer still.

Capital controls are in place. Banks are closed. And speaking about Grexit is no longer taboo.

MEPs’ points ranged from angry, exasperated, through to conciliatory and sympathetic, right on to gleeful.

In something of first, a mainstream MEP's speech went viral: Guy Verhofstadt, liberal leader, gave a loud, gesticulating, here-are-five-things-you-have-to-do, "I am angry", "I-know-it's-difficult-for-a-leftist" speech that landed several bodyblows on Tsipras.

The speech has since had millions of viewers on YouTube. It’s been translated into several languages. And Verhofstadt was, for while, trending in Greek social media.

The debate was streamed live by the BBC. And Live by France24. The EU's own online broadcasting service and the EP's webstream crashed under the weight of those trying to see the event for themselves.

Tsipras, for his part, sat through around 75 other interventions and answered with grace.

He was short on details.

But he answered many of the points. And defended many of his actions.

Of course, it got a bit boring too.

Three hours of interventions by ever-more obscure MEPs, who referred to the cradle of democracy, who sounded self-righteous, or who listed Greece's humanitarian problems (surely no one knows the situation better than Tsipras) is an endurance test.

But here's the thing: democracy - properly functioning and giving people a say - is slow and, dare one say it, dull. Democracy in multi-lingual Europe is slower still. And due to translation glitches or translation per se not particularly witty.

Does that matter? Beyond the superficial - No.

The now-viral Verhofstadt made the point that the debate should have happened much earlier.

He is right.

European president Martin Schulz is given to grandiose statements. But fundamentally he is a thoroughly political politician.

He called the debate a "milestone" in European democracy and said "it shows European transnational democracy exists here in the European Parliament".

He is right too.

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