ONE OF the most cherished traditions of the European Parliament is Question Time.
MEPs have the opportunity to question the Commission and the Council for separate full hour sessions 12 times a year. The questions are tabled in writing and in advance, to enable proper answers to be prepared. The answers are then read out to all MEPs in the Chamber and the real fun begins: MEPs can ask one follow-up question, not tabled beforehand, to try and catch the speaker out. Sometimes we succeed.
Given that there are always more questions than can be answered within the allotted time, any question left over is given the written prepared answer immediately afterwards. This system has worked well for some 30 years – until now.
The UK government, as President of the European Council, thought it would be better all round if the system was changed. Their brainwave was that every answer had to be signed off by all 25 Member States before being sent to MEPs. They never asked any MEP whether this would be an improvement, they just did it. The result was that we got no answers at all.
I raised a formal Point of Order in the Chamber when my question was still unanswered after three weeks. This was greeted with loud applause from all sides. Complaining that MEPs’ rights are being abused is guaranteed to win instant friends.
The previous month, I had raised a separate Point of Order. This was to complain that the UK Europe Minister had left the Chamber for a full 16 minutes to make a telephone call, which meant that Question Time was suspended until he returned and the time for questions was shortened accordingly. Maybe this was why he made the call.
I did, finally, get a written response to my original question, nearly four weeks late. But it was not an answer. There had been many promises about the Council leading the charge against excessive red tape and scrapping unwanted legislation. I had asked whether the Presidency had plans to push for the revision of a particular ‘framework’ Directive, which had been responsible for spawning subsequent detailed Directives on Working Time. The written answer simply said that it was up to the Commission to propose changes to Directives – something that I already knew. My question was whether the Council would press for change, and this was simply side stepped.
I am hopeful that the next Question Time will not only be a full hour, but might also become Answer Time. Meanwhile, the Parliament’s President has formally written to the UK government complaining about its unilateral decision to change the system and asking to change back. It will be interesting to see whether his question gets side stepped too.