EU parliament abandons attendance fine idea for Barroso speech
By Honor Mahony
European parliament authorities have bid a hasty retreat from a tentative proposal to fine for non-attendance of today's State of the Union speech after the idea was met with derision and anger by MEPs.
A meeting yesterday (6 September) evening of parliament president Jerzy Buzek and the 14 vice presidents of the EU assembly abandoned an idea to check up on just who was listening to European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso's speech and the ensuing debate.
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"The parliament's bureau looked at the matter and we agreed that we need to beef up MEPs' presence during debate. But we felt we need a bit more time to mull over the various possibilities," Mr Buzek said Tuesday morning.
The original proposal agreed by the assembly's political groups late last week envisioned three electronic checks over the three hour slot and a small fine for MEPs whose absence was registered twice.
A short debate on the issue before the presidential meeting already showed the way the wind was blowing.
UK Liberal MEP Baroness Sarah Ludford called the idea a "massive own goal" adding: "You have damaged the reputation of the European Union and indeed President Barroso."
"We're freely elected members and we can sort out our priorities according to our own convictions," said German centre-right politician Bernd Posselt.
Joseph Daul, president of the largest group, the centre-right EPP, was careful to emphasize he was not present at the meeting last week when the preliminary decision was made but suggested "we should take another look at this."
The proposal, the first time that something has ever been concretely suggested, follows years of poor plenary attendance by the 736 deputies during speeches - a phenomenon reserved not only for EU commissioners but also for visiting dignitaries.
The little penalty kerfuffle has resulted in Mr Buzek making a personal plea - and putting his authority on the line - that MEPs should be present for Mr Barroso's speech, which is likely to focus on the problems facing the EU and outline some solutions.
"I would like to launch a personal request to all of you to be present" said Mr Buzek, referring to the importance of the "image of this House worldwide."
The European Commission for its part has steered clear of the parliament's internal attendance debate with a spokesperson only venturing to say that "obviously we hope that there will be a lot of MEPs coming along."
Mr Barroso appears quite regularly before parliament but by billing this as a State of the Union address, the name also given to the annual address by the US president, he has ensured that the build-up to the appearance has been far greater than would usually be the case.