European politics is a colourful cocktail of national political cultures and traditions. With the departure of the UK from the European Union, we have sadly lost the British debating tradition, lively, witty, rich in rhetorics. The UK Prime Minister’s Question Time is the highlight of the parliamentary week, as political gladiators cross swords and parliament becomes the arena, with the smell of saw dust, blood and wild animals. Political drama and entertainment of the highest calibre.
The European Parliament’s current plenary debates with the Commission are mostly a timid affair, with little political fireworks. The Commission gets ample speaking time, whereas MEPs have to squeeze their remarks into 1 minute speeches, and at the end the Commission can chose which questions to answer and which to ignore. For the Commission these debates are a chore, more than anything else, and for the public it is about as exciting as watching paint dry. …
But as the European Union is rapidly becoming a mature political union, the need for public accountability and political debate is ever more pressing. Events in recent weeks have shown European citizens are eager to see and hear first hand the prime actors in European politics. Question Time must be revived and refreshed. The European Commission is accountable to Parliament, and what better place than the public arena of the parliamentary plenary chamber for that exercise.
It is probably unknown even to most MEPs, but the European Parliament has a Question Time as well. It is foreseen in Article 137 of the EP Rules of Procedure. But the article has been gathering dust in recent years, somewhere in a bottom drawer. And even when it was still used, years ago, it never quite became the thrilling zenith of political accountability it could be. Not least because in the best of EU institutional traditions it was carefully gutted of any potential for excitement, confrontation or unforeseen turns. But with a little tweaking and flexible interpretation the article can serve perfectly well for a new style Question Time.
The President of the European Commission should appear before Parliament twice a month for a proper question and answer session. MEPs can address any given topic, and they may get a follow up intervention, ensuring that questions will not be ducked and allowing for lively interaction and debate between the Commission President and the MEPs.
The European Union is a mature political union. Now we need mature, exciting politics. Let’s make Question Time the highlight of EU political traditions.