I thought that, after eight years in the European Parliament, nothing could shock me any more. I was wrong.
Yesterday, the President of the Parliament, Hans-Gert Pöttering, asked for, and was granted, arbitrary powers to suspend the rules of the institution in order to disadvantage the tiny number of MEPs who want a referendum on the European Constitution Lisbon Treaty.
I have come to expect hypersensitivity to criticism, flouting of rules, intolerance of dissent, authoritarianism. But nothing had prepared me for such blatancy.
Hans-Gert openly admitted that the behaviour of his Euro-sceptic opponents was within the rules. And he wasn’t asking to change those rules – a procedure that would take time. No, he simply wanted permission to disregard them. Permission was duly granted, by 20 committee votes to 3.
Hans-Gert’s letter is worth quoting in full:
Dear Mr Leinen, [Jo Leinen, a German Socialist, is Chairman of the Constitutional Affairs Committee]
In the course of the current part session, Parliament was confronted on several occasions with procedural requests which were formally based on and fulfilled the requirements of a provision of the Rules of Procedure, but which according to the full conviction of myself and of other Members of the House were moved with the intention of obstructing the procedures of the House.
I take the view that my overall responsibility for the implementation of the Rules of Procedure and the powers conferred on me by Rule 19 include the power not to allow such practices.
I should therefore be grateful if, pursuant to Rule 201(1), you could submit to the Committee on Constitutional Affairs the following question for urgent consideration:
‘Can Rule 19(1) be interpreted as meaning that the powers conferred by this Rule include the power to call an end to excessive use of motions such as points of order, procedural motions, explanations of vote and excessive, indiscriminate requests for separate, split or roll call votes where these appear to the President to be aimed at deliberately disrupting the procedures of the House or the rights of other Members.’
I would appreciate it if I could have your Committee’s interpretation before the opening of the next part session.
I haven’t made this up: you can see a copy of the original letter over at England Expects.
Re-read the letter slowly. Hans-Gert accepts that our demands for electronic votes and for the right to explain how we voted were perfectly legal. But he does not ask for the rules to be changed. He asks for the right to ignore them at his own discretion – that is, to ignore such requests when they come from Euro-sceptics.
His fig-leaf – more of a strawberry-leaf, really – is Rule 19 (1). This, too, is worth quoting:
“The President shall direct all the activities of the Parliament and its bodies under the conditions laid down in these Rules. He shall enjoy all the powers necessary to preside over the proceedings of Parliament and to ensure that they are properly conducted.” (Emphasis added)
In other words, the President is bound by Rule 19 to uphold the Rules of Procedure, not allowed to set them aside as he pleases.
The whole business is outrageous. I am almost tempted to compare it to the Nazi Ermächtigungsgesetz – the Enabling Act of 1933 which allowed Hitler to override parliament and the constitution. But I won’t because a) it would be disproportionate and b) it would be terrifically rude to Hans-Gert, who lost his father in the war and who, for all that he is behaving appallingly on this occasion, is a decent man and a democrat. Which is why I am so disappointed in him. He, of all people, should be alive to the dangers of assuming discretionary powers in order to bulldozer the law.
Let me instead quote the grand-daddy of British resistance against Euro-totalitarianism, Edmund Burke. What most bothered him about the French Revolution, more than its republicanism, its atheism, its threat to the peace of Europe, was that it owned itself bound by no law.
“They must be worse than blind who cannot see with what undeviating regularity of system, in this case and in all cases, they pursue their scheme for the destruction of every independent power,” he wrote in his Letters on a Regicide Peace. “Their will is the law, not only at home, but as to the concerns of every nation. They have swept aside the very constitutions under which Legislatures acted and the Laws were made.”
Eerily prescient, no? And what has driven the European Parliament to these lengths? What has provoked them to tear up their own rules? A massive filibuster that was preventing them from passing any Bills? Hardly.
As loyal readers of this blog will know, the President of the European Parliament already enjoys considerable discretionary powers. But MEPs have two rights that even he cannot override: we can demand that votes be counted electronically rather than by a show-of-hands (a slightly slower procedure, but a more accurate one, and one that allows everyone to see how their MEPs voted); and we can ask for the right to explain, in not more than one minute, why we voted as we did.
A handful of pro-referendum MEPs – souverainistes from Poland and France, Scandinavian Left-wingers, UKIP and Conservatives from Britain, along with Jim Allister from Northern Ireland, the most honest man in Unionist politics – decided to make full use of both procedures in order to protest about the cancellation of the promised referendums and the implementation of large parts of the constitution in anticipation of formal ratification. I have been ending every speech, in a playful echo of Cato’s “Delenda Est Carthago", with “Pacto Olisipiensis Censenda Est” – The Lisbon Treaty must be Put to the Vote.
Two dozen MEPs making a series of one minute speeches hardly constitutes a filibuster. At worst, we would have kept MEPs from their lunch for half an hour and perhaps delayed the start of the afternoon session. But even this is intolerable to the parliamentary authorities. Blinded by their resentment of “anti-Europeans”, which is in turn a surrogate for the fear and contempt they feel for their own electorates, they have abandoned any pretence at legality in order to prevent us making our point in the chamber. The very sound of someone calling for a referendum is offensive to their guilty ears. The sight of even so moderate and respectable an MEP as Kathy Sinnot, an Irish disability rights campaigner, wearing a tee-shirt with the word “REFERENDUM” has led to her being summoned for disciplinary action.
What they really hate, my federalist colleagues, is being reminded of the fact that they all supported referendums until it became clear they would lose them. We are their bad consciences, the ghosts at their feast.
To prolong the Macbeth reference a little, the shocking thing about their behaviour is not that they are trying to silence their critics, nor even that they are breaking the rules – after all, they are doing so on a much grander scale by reviving the constitution following two “No” votes. No, the breath-taking aspect of the whole business is that they haven’t troubled to hide the illegality of what they’re doing. They’ve happily put it all on paper. As Lady Macbeth puts it:
“What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?”
But there comes a point when the arrogance of power, the sense that there is one rule for the elites and one for everyone else, becomes intolerable. A point where Birnam Wood starts advancing on Dunsinane. By behaving as they have, MEPs have brought forward that moment.
It is now clear that the constitution has no legitimacy. It is becoming clear, too that the European Parliament has lost whatever shreds of legitimacy it might once have had. So let me close with another prescient quotation from Burke:
“Who that admires, and from the heart is attached, to true national parliaments, but must turn in horror and disgust from such a profane burlesque and parody of that sacred institution.”
European Parliament to ban Eurosceptic groups
Plans to eliminate Eurosceptics as an organised opposition within the European Parliament are expected to be agreed by a majority of MEPs this summer.
The European Union assembly’s political establishment is pushing through changes that will silence dissidents by changing the rules allowing Euro-MPs to form political groupings.
Richard Corbett, a British Labour MEP, is leading the charge to cut the number of party political tendencies in the Parliament next year, a move that would dissolve UKIP’s pan-European Eurosceptic “Independence and Democracy” grouping.
Under the rule change, the largest and msot pro-EU groups would tighten their grip on the Parliament’s political agenda and keep control of lavish funding. Article continues advertisement
”It would prevent single issue politicians from being given undue support from the public purse,” said Mr Corbett.
”We want to avoid the formation of a fragmented Parliament, deeply divided into many small groups and unable to work effectively.”
Mr Corbett’s proposals will also give the President of the Parliament sweeping powers to approve or reject parliamentary questions.
Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, claimed that the move goes hand in hand with the denial of popular votes on the new EU Treaty.
”Welcome to your future. This shows an EU mindset that is arrogant, anti-democratic and frankly scary,” he said.
”These people are so scared of public opinion they are willing to set in stone the right to ignore it. Freedom requires the governing elite to be held to account. They must be getting very worried if they are enacting such dictatorial powers for themselves.”
Current rules allow 20 MEPs from a fifth of the EU’s member states to form groupings, giving them a say in the Parliament’s administration and power structure.
Under the changes, the threshold would become 30 MEPs from one quarter of the EU’s member states.
The Liberal Democrats, Greens, the far Left, Eurosceptics and other groupings have vowed to oppose the plans during a vote scheduled for July 9. Andrew Duff, leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrat Euro-MPs and a committed EU Federalist, has opposed the silencing of UKIP on the basis of democratic principle.
”Whatever one’s views about their politics it cannot be argued that these small groups do not represent a strand of European public opinion,” he said.
”If the European Parliament is to be the legitimate forum for post-national democracy, all sorts of minority opinions have to be given effective, if proportionate representation.”
But the proposals are expected to be passed with the backing of the Parliament’s centre-Left and Right groupings, which account for 64 per cent of MEPs, including British Conservative and Labour deputies.
The row over the new EU Treaty meanwhile took a new turn yesterday after José Manuel Barroso, the Commission President, warned Irish voters that they will “pay” if they reject the document in a referendum next month.
Speaking in Brussels on Monday night, Mr Barroso attempted to head off growing opposition to the Treaty by threatening outcast status for Ireland.
”If there was a ‘No’ in Ireland or in another country, it would have a very negative effect for the EU. We will all pay a price for it, Ireland included, if this is not done in a proper way,” he said.
Officials fear that advanced plans to create a new EU President, Foreign Minister and European diplomatic service will be sunk by an Irish referendum rejection on June 12.
The new Lisbon Treaty replaces the old EU Constitution that was rejected by French and Dutch voters three years ago. While the other EU member states, such as Britain, have successfully evaded popular votes, Ireland is constitutionally required to hold a referendum and Brussels dreads a repeat of the 2001 Irish rejection of the Nice Treaty.
Yesterday, Paddy Power Plc, Ireland’s biggest bookmaker, rung alarm bells by following the opinion polls to cut the odds of a referendum rejection by half – from 4-1 to 2-1.
Superstitious EU officials are also keenly aware that the referendum result will be announced on an inauspicious date, Friday the 13th of June.