Thursday 5th July 2018: As the midday voting session approached, the parliamentary chamber – known as the hemisphere, rapidly filled up. First up was the voting for the third reading of the controversial report on Copyright in the Digital Single Market. In case you haven’t heard, it can be summarized as legislation to update copyright for the internet age. To force the giant internet platforms like Facebook and Google to pay news organizations, musicians and others before linking to their stories or materials and require all uploaded content to be checked for copyright infringement. There has been considerable debate on the proposals over the last two years; some would say Google et al have been stirring up social media. Campaigners have denounced the provisions as unworkable and run a petition called “Save Your Internet” which garnered 700,000 signatures. But supporters of the report say the changes will protect and allow copyright owners to win back money from internet firms that profit unfairly from their work. It might be an EU bill, but it clearly has worldwide consequences!
There were very short speeches, they are all timed and strictly enforced, by the committee chair and the primary opponent – German Green MEP Julia Reda. With electronic voting the close result was known immediately – 278 in favour, 318 against and 31 abstentions. There was jubilation from those against because it is quite unusual for votes to go against committee proposals, not least because there are excellent committee systems that ensure the often highly complex and diverse Europe wide stakeholder interests are well understood. We understand subsequent to the vote that there is an expectation that there will be open debate that it is hoped will lead to compromise, giving copyright holders more power without destroying the open principles upon which the internet was founded. This is democracy in action.
We were very fortunate to be present for this highly unusual event. We had taken the tram to the parliament building the day before, but because the Polish prime minister was speaking, we were unable to get access. So yesterday we arrived early and had no difficulty gaining entry. In fact, the visitor gallery was very quiet all morning apart from the constant stream of tour parties who would be ushered into the visitor gallery and stay for perhaps 15 minutes and then leave. We were there for almost the entire five-hour session and remained captivated throughout. However, we suspect many tour group visitors would leave with a very skewed view of the proceedings. At any one time there were rarely more than a couple of dozen MEPs in the chamber. And the contributions were all very short. Passing visitors might leave with a reinforced view that the EU Parliament is powerless and a complete waste of time.
The first item on the day’s agenda was a debate on participation of persons with disabilities in the EU election process. Many MEPs spoke including several obviously disabled individuals and while there was a lot of overlap, many introduced interesting ideas. Others made telling comments that the overall participation in EU elections is disappointingly low and that any efforts to increase disabled involvement should be part of the wider effort to encourage general interest. We were however disappointed that our very own disabled MEP Brian Crowley was once again not at the session. The Commissioner for Justice, Věra Jourová wrapped up the debate and responded to many of the speakers. There is clearly a very healthy and ongoing engagement between commissioners and MEPs.
There were then three sessions on foreign affairs. A very lively and at times emotional debate about the overturning of recent mayoral elections in Moldova highlighted the extraordinary capture of power in the country by oligarchs loyal to Russia, with widespread corruption, banking fraud and misuse of the justice system. The point was made that Moldova was on a path to EU membership, supported by a big majority of the population and that this situation is further evidence of the tensions between Russia and Europe already demonstrated in the Ukraine. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Frederica Maria Mogherini outlined the deep engagement of the EU in this area and specifically actions that the EU expects to ensure reforms in the areas of judicial independence, electoral practices, media independence. She emphasized that this is the EU supporting Modolvan citizens, representatives of which were at the parliament yesterday, and that continued EU funding is contingent on reform activity.
There were then debates on Somalia and Burundi. MEPs and Mogherini made the point that these countries are among the most troubled nations in the world and as a result are primary sources of largescale migration to the EU. At times it seems the plight of the deeply troubled African nations is insoluble. Mogherini summarized the actions the EU is taking in the areas of humanitarian support including shelter, water, health care as well as security situations and emphasized the transfer of responsibility to local actors as being the only long-term solution. In her wrap up Mogherini stressed the continued humanitarian support through local partners, but announced the suspension of direct financial support to the administration of Burundi, the only country to have withdrawn from the international criminal court together with a deterioration of the situation in the country. Political freedoms are disregarded, arbitrary arrests and extra judicial executions have now become commonplace. One is left with the impression this is an area that the EU is struggling to get to grips with at a time that migration is becoming a major issue.
Throughout the day it was clear MEPs were constantly entering and speaking and then leaving the chamber. So at any time, apart from the voting, it would appear to the casual observer that few MEPs are actively engaged. But of course, many are following the debates on live feeds as well as continuing meetings with stakeholders, committees etc and this was demonstrated by how rapidly the entire chamber filled for the midday voting session.
We were left with the overriding impression that this is a highly professional organization. Superbly chaired, managed to the minute with procedures and practices that facilitate engagement of MEPs as well as interaction with the commission and executive with a great deal of informed, constructive debate. Inevitably we compared this demonstrated professionalism with the obvious incompetence in recent times of UK and US administrations. We suspect MEPs will be happy to see the back of showmen like Nigel Farage whose only contribution to the EU parliament has been entirely negative. In contrast the EU parliament gives all the signs of delivering government for grownups by grownups.