José Manuel Barroso's first 'State of the Union' speech of the Lisbon Treaty era got off to a bad start even before its delivery in Parliament this morning (7 September).
The president of the European Parliament and its political group leaders were forced to abandon a decision they took last week that would have forced MEPs to attend Barroso's speech or face an "appropriate penalty".
To enforce the decision, MEPs' attendance would have been checked electronically three times.
But faced with a wave of discontent from within their own ranks, political group leaders decided to retract their demand.
The decision appeared to be motivated by fears that Socialist and Green MEPs – who had opposed Barroso's nomination for a second term at the Commission – would boycott the ceremony, leaving Barroso to speak before a half-empty hemicycle in Strasbourg.
Martin Schulz, leader of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-president of the Greens, were particularly worried about the attendance of their own MEPs. The largest political group, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), did not object.
"They demanded particularly high attendance during this unprecedented debate," said European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek (EPP), quoted by AFP.
However, this decision was seen by many as insulting and anti-democratic and triggered an unprecedented email exchange between MEPs who revolted against their own leaders.
One of the longest-serving MEPs, Bernd Posselt (EPP, Germany), wrote to his colleagues that he had been a disciplined member of the assembly for 16 years, but he would not take part in the debate on Tuesday morning "because of these three strange checks of our presence in the Chamber this time".
"This method and wording of the decision of the Conference of Presidents is not in accordance with the dignity of the free mandate and the independence of an elected MEP. We are not schoolboys and schoolgirls," Posselt fumed.
Anneli Jäätteenmäki MEP (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe; ALDE), a former prime minister of Finland, asked: "What is the state of the mental health of the Conference of Presidents?"
The EPP, the largest political group in Parliament, seized the opportunity to attack their rival Schulz, who is eyeing the Parliament's presidency for the second half of the Assembly's mandate.
"One of the members of the Conference of Presidents would like to become the president of the European Parliament," noted László Surján, a Hungarian centre-right MEP in an email. "After this decision, are you sure that he will gain the necessary majority?" he asked wittily.
Back in the USSR
Dutch MEP Peter van Dalen (European Conservatives and Reformists) wrote to colleagues that "the Conference of Presidents seems to be reviving the old days of the USSR". "Be there, or be punished," he said. "Incredible."
EPP leader Joseph Daul was not present when the decision was taken on Thursday, Parliament sources told EurActiv. He was replaced by Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a senior Spanish MEP, who raised no objections to the idea of presence checks in plenary.
Sarah Ludford (ALDE; UK) gave a passionate speech yesterday evening voicing her astonishment that the Parliament was "paying MEPs to listen to Barroso" and that that the institution was in fact "shooting itself in the foot". Her speech was followed by resounding applause in plenary, which sealed the fate of the ill-founded proposal.
Even before the presidents and vice-presidents of the political groups (the Parliament Bureau) gathered yesterday night over the embarrassing issue, sources in the Parliament's administration told EurActiv that the political leaders had no choice but to retract their proposal.