A daily blog on the thrills, spills, and frequent absurdities of the world's one and only 'non-imperial empire' - as Barroso himself called it - the European Union.

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Tuesday, 17 January 2012

A Massive Blow for Parliamentary Neutrality

Martin Schulz has just taken over the Presidency of the European Parliament. The German leader of the Socialist parliamentary group was far and away the most obvious candidate to take the role, ahead of Green MEP Rebecca Harms, Conservative MEP Nirj Deva, and Liberal MEP Dianna Wallis. It was, in EU fashion, something of a stitch-up: the two dominant parliamentary blocs, the centre-right EPP and the socialists, had already agreed to share the presidency. This is more comparable to the Blair-Brown handover than it is a 'free vote' of MEPs, as Mr. Schulz insists. With most British politicians in the EU still suffering 'collateral damage' as a result of David Cameron vetoing their proposed European treat - or, as it ought to be known by analysts, 'pulling a French one' - the other contenders really didn't stand much of a chance.

But Schulz's appointment isn't just about foregone conclusions making a mess of democracy. It is of vital importance, from a democratic standpoint that the Presidency of the European Parliament remains neutral; something that Mr. Schulz is not, by any stretch of the imagination. Not only is it the only one of the six EU presidences to be subject to a popular vote, but it is also the only chamber of EU government that citizens get to see in action. Where the Commission and the Council are headed (or populated) by unaccountable, appointed individuals, the President of the Parliament is always an MEP. And, where the Commission and the Council are often highly secretive and sealed off from the media, the Parliament is always open - it even has its own television channel (Europarltv), the only glimpse into the workings of the European Union that citizens of Europe are likely to get. Parliament is also the only venue for views which differ from those of the Commissioners (who are almost exclusively from the centre-right EPP) can be aired. In other words, a vital asset - one whose premiership should be put beyond the reach of one side or the other.

The position itself is one of tremendous power. Although it may be largely ceremonial in the grand scheme of things, in the chamber, the President is king. This was exemplified by a 'riot' in the Parliament back in 2008, when eighty MEPs protested the decision to hold the Irish referendum again with banners and placards. The President of the Parliament ordered the banners confiscated, the MEPs escorted out, and had some of them disciplined. The punishments included fines of up to one thousand euros and explusion from the chamber.

But it was all decided arbitrarily. Although several MEPs had called for the protestors to be removed, the final say was the President's. In the end, thirteen MEPs faced discipline: one of them, according to Nigel Farage, had 'never shouted in her life.' And another, Andreas Molzer, was, as pointed out to Parliament by Mr. Farage, actually in Frankfurt. The President of the European Parliament has the power to evict MEPs at a whim, even when their innocence - for the crime of 'protesting,' no less - can be readily proven. That is not power that Mr. Schulz should wield.

Mr. Schulz was one of those MEPs that called for the protestors to be removed. He called them Communists and Nazis. Insults which he has employed repeatedly, although takes offence to when deployed against him. He once famously called a Dutch MEP a 'fascist' because he said that details of Barroso's expenses - over one million euros per annum - should be made public (the video has since disappeared from YouTube channel. But you can still see its husk here in all its uncontestable glory). He's as far from neutral as it's possible to get in the European Parliament. So why does he now hold the post where neutrality is most important?


In other news, the European Commission has claimed that 'it knows better' than ratings agencies when it comes to the financial viability of its rescue fund. It cited 'secret evidence' which, it claims, shows that European economies are in a much better financial position than it cares to admit. Although it sounds like bombast, we shouldn't dismiss this announcement too readily - after all, it knew Greece was fiscally incontinent a long time before it told anyone else.

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