Juncker’s tantrum highlights the big EU democracy problem

Rachel Cunliffe
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Juncker may be a delusional egomaniac, but he was also right (Source: Getty)

The European Parliament is “ridiculous, very ridiculous” and entirely “not serious”.

No, those aren’t the words of Nigel Farage, but of Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president and one of the EU’s fiercest advocates.

Juncker, who heads up the executive branch at the EU, was addressing a plenary session of the Parliament in Strasbourg. Only around 30 MEPs had turned up for a session on assessing the presidency of Malta, the EU’s smallest country by population.

Read more: Juncker derides empty European Parliament as "ridiculous"

The fact that some 720 MEPs didn’t think it worth turning up for a speech from the Maltese Prime Minister enraged Juncker, leading to a multi-lingual altercation between him and the Parliament president that shattered the illusion of a united EU.

Juncker is a delusional egomaniac, thoroughly detached from reality, and, as the former Prime Minister of the EU’s second smallest country, clearly has an axe to grind. But though his tantrum may have been undignified and self-serving, he accidentally made a serious point.

Quick, name your MEP

Here’s a test for you: name one of your MEPs. Mind gone blank? Okay, forget your own, try naming any three at all. Bonus points if you can think of one who has not stood in a Ukip leadership contest. Is that still too hard?

This is not in any way to denigrate the work the MEPs do. Most MEPs work extremely hard. Farage, whose attendance record was predictably abysmal (the third worst out of all 751 MEPs) is not a fair assessment of the tough job they do representing us on the European stage in the face of great bureaucratic adversity.

There are 22 standing committees for a start, all of which meet once a month for two days, plus 39 parliamentary delegations to other countries. The vast majority of parliamentary work takes place in Brussels, but once a month, all MEPs are expected to decamp from Belgium and travel to Strasbourg in France, for a four-day plenary session in the parliament’s “official” base.

It was a Strasbourg session that was so sparsely attended this week, incurring Juncker’s wrath. The fact that he did not query the sheer senselessness of paying £93m a year of taxpayer money to move the entire parliamentary apparatus 300 miles just so the French feel they are getting their due respect is telling.

Democratic deficits

But I digress. The point is, despite the work MEPs do and the impact it has on the lives of people back in their home countries, they are not held accountable to anywhere near the same degree as national politicians are.

Turnout in the UK for the 2014 European Parliament elections was a pitiful 35.6 per cent (compared to 66.1 per cent in the General Election the following year), and the EU average of 42.6 per cent is hardly much better.

If we don’t bother to vote, and are barely conscious of who our MEPs even are, it’s no stretch to say we are lax about tracking their voting record.

And yet the powers that MEPs have with regards to regulatory standards, trade, and even tax are immense. It is as if the EU realised that no one was paying attention to the Parliament, so decided to give it extra authority to make people take notice. It didn’t work, so now we have a hugely powerful governing body matched by very little scrutiny.

To say there is a democratic deficit in the European Parliament, and in the EU more widely, is a mirthless understatement. The Greeks mired in a debt crisis and hit by relentless austerity imposed on them by Europe-wide institutions have very little recourse – it’s not like voting out their current set of 21 MEPs will make any difference whatsoever.

The same is true for the southern Italians currently bearing the brunt of the migrant crisis, which is being exacerbated by lofty decisions taken in Brussels. And although Spain’s exporters are hit while Germany’s benefit from the price of the euro, there’s no one Spanish companies can turn to for help.

That is what made Juncker’s outburst so pertinent. Against this backdrop, the European Parliament is ridiculous, but not because MEPs failed to flatter his ego by turning up to his speeches. Low attendance is a symptom, not a cause. The political unity does not currently exist for the Parliament to be held accountable in the way we expect of our democratic institutions, and as such it is inefficient (some would say inept) at solving many of the bloc’s supranational problems.

I am not arguing that the EU is pointless or harmful overall, or that other countries should follow the UK in leaving it. International governance without strong international government (of the kind which would be political suicide to propose) is exceedingly difficult. And if the EU gets it wrong, we cannot say definitively that any realistic alternative would do better.

But the spectacle of Juncker screaming frustrated abuse at a mostly-empty hall perfectly encapsulates the fundamental problem with the EU, whether the Commission president is ready to admit it or not.

Read more: Verhofstadt has five big questions ahead of next week's Brexit talks

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