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Revealed: EU’s plan to sex up the European Parliament

Revealed: EU’s plan to sex up the European Parliament

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BRUSSELS — The European Parliament knows it has a reputation for being boring. Now it’s trying to sex things up.

MEPs don’t bother showing up to debates during the monthly plenary sessions in Strasbourg; journalists barely pay the place any attention; and the Parliament’s procedures are a mess — that’s according to the Parliament’s own civil servants who issued the grim diagnosis in a “background note” to senior MEPs earlier this year.

Obtained exclusively by POLITICO, an obscure working group cooked up a document considering ways to overhaul the Parliament’s machinery in time for European elections in June 2024.

“Debates are less lively because Members often come to plenary only for their intervention, they read out their speeches and leave right after without listening to the entire debate,” the document states.

It also bemoans that there is “insufficient media attractiveness of some plenary agenda items resulting from lack of liveliness of debates [and] topics perceived as having less immediate impact and of limited relevance.”

The Parliament is traditionally seen as the junior partner to the European Commission, which proposes legislation, and the EU Council, formed of national governments. The institution is attempting to reform its procedures in order to pack more of a punch in the next five-year legislature, when 720 MEPs will sit in the chamber.

A second document, dated May 24, also seen by POLITICO, summarizes a debate that MEPs in the same working group held in late March in which they discussed the first document and came up with some proposed solutions.

The working group — made up of 13 top MEPs — has met 18 times since January and is chaired by Parliament President Roberta Metsola. “Reforming plenary sessions should further develop, inter alia, the liveliness of debates, their relevance for citizens, and the accountability of other institutions,” says a document from January setting out the group’s mandate.

Chief among its plans to resuscitate the Parliament are proposals to: “Improve attendance by improving the amount of speaking time for Members” and “reduce the amount of parallel meetings with the plenary to encourage participation,” or even holding “key debates” during which MEPs would be strictly prohibited from holding concurrent meetings elsewhere in the building.

A case in point is the powerful Bureau, which comprises Metsola and her 14 vice-presidents and handles the Parliament’s internal administration: It meets like clockwork exactly one hour after the start of each plenary session, at 6 p.m. on a Monday.

During a debate in the working group, MEPs raised ideas that included: limiting the number of topics that MEPs discuss during each plenary to “make it easier for the media to follow”; ending each day’s plenary sittings no later than 10 p.m.; and holding debates with the presence of all EU commissioners.

The monthly agenda is too rigid to react to topical events which would help drive media coverage — but at the same time too many changes to the agenda are made at the last minute to allow MEPs to “voice political views” at the opening of the four-day plenary sessions, the civil servants prescribed.

Parliament’s Secretary General Alessandro Chiocchetti outlined plans to reform the make-up of legislative committees, budgetary work, scrutiny of the European Commission, external relations and the plenary to MEPs in September, saying he wanted the institution to be “stronger.”

Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch lawmaker in the centrist Renew group, said that after the recent conflagration in the Middle East, “we should have had an extraordinary plenary immediately.” There was no plenary session until October 17, 10 days after Hamas’ attacks on October 7.

“Parliament should not be focusing so much on how do we organize the plenary and the agenda … I think the key question is how does the European Parliament use its powers as a democratic watchdog,” she said. “We want Parliament to show some teeth? We could do it right now. We don’t need a working group for that.

“The secretary general should maybe focus on running the administration rather than having views on political work,” in ‘t Veld added.

The March 17 document also states that the Parliament is failing to make the most of its role as a watchdog for the Commission through its “Question Time” procedure, used to grill EU commissioners. “Many proposals are presented by the Commission directly to the press instead of in plenary,” the document said.

“I think having very crucial amendments being discussed and then having the vote directly after could be interesting,” said Anna Cavazzini, a senior Green lawmaker from Germany.

“If you compare it to the national level, the German Bundestag is on television a lot because it’s mostly [about] the conflict between the government and opposition. This kind of conflicts we don’t have, and even holding the Commission accountable … we just don’t have this opposition-government vibe,” Cavazzini told POLITICO over the phone.

There is no mention in the documents of axing the monthly traveling circus to Strasbourg.

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