By Eliot Wilson
Dorothy Parker famously and punningly declared that you could lead a whore to culture but you couldn’t make her think. The same applies, mutatis mutandis , to legislators.
Jean-Claude Juncker found this to his cost last week when he berated the European Parliament as “ridiculous”, only a few dozen lawmakers showing up to hear an address from the Prime Minister of Malta.
Perhaps M. Juncker’s background makes him particularly sensitive to slights against the smaller members of the European Union, but a valid question underlines his outburst: how do you make parliamentarians show up?
One thing that both the European Parliament and the UK House of Lords show is that money isn’t enough. It would be interesting to know how many MEPs signed in at Strasbourg, compared to the number who actually put bottoms on seats in the hemicycle itself.
I used to work in the UK Parliament, and one of my duties was sitting in the Chamber for quite long periods of time. I know all too well that attendance varies. I have seen the House of Commons full to bursting, and I have seen it at the end of the day when there are literally three MPs present, talking to empty benches. The latter is much rarer than the former.
If you really want people to turn up, you have to give them a show. The debate has to be worth attending. Like any other human beings, legislators will vote with their feet.
I mean this as no criticism of Malta and its presidency of the EU, but there was clearly a reason that only 30 or so MEPs bothered to attend.
Perhaps it is a more fundamental problem of the European Parliament itself. MEPs don’t feel that they are doing anything which their constituents would care about. Compare and contrast with Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons: there is not a seat to be had, because people outside are watching.
So it’s a tall order. You have to make the citizens of Europe feel that the EP is worthwhile. That it performs a valuable function. Writing from Brexit Britain, that seems a tall order. But M. Juncker, and Antonio Tajani, and lawmakers from across the Union, must do just that if they want to see a packed house, day after day. Relevance, action, lively debate, about subjects that matter. That’s what people want to see. Then MEPs will turn up.
Eliot Wilson is a journalist and writer who spent more than 10 years working in the House of Commons. You can follow him on Twitter @SybariteLooks