In the final plenary session of 2016, the European Parliament furtively amended its Rules of Procedure to give its President sweeping powers to censor so-called “hate speech” by Members in the Chamber. Outgoing President Martin Schulz had the draconian measure drafted by fellow-socialist MEP Richard Corbett with virtually no consultation of backbench MEPs.
In a vote on 13 December 2016 the European Parliament adopted a report by UK MEP Richard Corbett of the S&D Group entitled General Revision of the Parliament’s Rules of Procedure. Billed as a tidying up exercise, journalists have now become aware of a gagging order hidden in the text by Schulz and Corbett. It was one of a number of “streamlining measures” in the revised rules intended to help the President usurp the powers of backbench MEPs.
The new Rule 165 grants power to the Parliament’s President to “interrupt the live broadcasting of the sitting in the case of defamatory, racist or xenophobic language or behaviour by a Member.” The rule change goes further by empowering the President to “delete from the audiovisual record of the proceedings those parts of a speech by a Member that contain defamatory, racist or xenophobic language.”
The International Press Association, which represents journalists, is shocked by this Orwellian measure. However, Brussels observers will recognise it it just another example of Martin Schulz’ centralising of power on himself during his five years as President, combined with his complete intolerance for any views which differ from his own “pro-European” ones. Worse, Rule 165 does not give any guidance as to what constitutes defamatory, racist or xenophobic language, but would leave it to the whim of the President. The vague concept of “hate speech” much touted by the left in recent years to stifle dissent, had no legally-agreed definition.
Now that Martin Schulz has left the EU stage to run as SPD candidate for German Chancellor, it is hoped that his successor, Antonio Tajani of the centre-right EPP Group, will refuse to use this new power which Schulz had drafted for himself when he expected to remain in power for a further term. In campaigning to replace Schulz, Tajani stated that he wanted to be President to “all Members”, indicating a change of practice from Schulz who systematically targeted MEPs with so-called “anti-European views”, often banning them from the chamber or fining them for their opinions expressed.
What the European Parliament needs, if it is serious about re-connecting with EU citizens, is not censorship of unpleasant opinions, but to become a true forum where elected representatives can express the concerns of those citizens without fear of having their statements excised from the public record. Indeed, if an MEP is deemed to have used “unparliamentary language”, then it is far better for the President to simply correct him on the spot and let the public record stand. Journalists and citizens can then watch the exchange and make up their own minds.