BRUSSELS – The head of the European Union's executive body denounced the bloc's parliament as "totally ridiculous" during a spat over the meager attendance at Tuesday's plenary session for the prime minister of tiny Malta.
After EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker thanked the few dozen of the 700-plus legislators in the huge atrium for showing up, he insisted that the "parliament is not serious" since lawmakers failed to attend the day's keynote debate in larger numbers.
The session centered on Malta's 6-month presidency of the EU, which ended last weekend. Malta has 415,000 people in contrast to the EU, which has half a billion.
EU Parliament President Antonio Tajani chided Juncker and asked for "a more respectful attitude."
"The Commission does not control the parliament. It is the parliament that should be controlling the Commission," he said.
To which Juncker retorted: "There are only a few members in the parliament to control the Commission. You are ridiculous."
The Commission prepares rules and regulations for the bloc and runs its day-to-day business. Juncker is considered a key leader of the 28-nation bloc. The parliament has increased its clout over the past year but many EU decisions are still made by the leaders of the member states or by the Commission, not by the European Parliament.
For many, being an EU legislator is still perceived as an easy job for politicians without a big national portfolio or veterans seeking a leisurely path to retirement.
The exchange at the legislature in Strasbourg, France, was even more amazing since Juncker and Tajani belong to the same EPP Christian Democratic group.
EU Vice President Frans Timmermans said the two men discussed the incident and "then it was off the table again."
The views of the parliament bore out Juncker's assertion, with row after row of empty seats. Philippe Lamberts of the Greens groups, one of the few to show up, was seen applauding the rebuke of Juncker.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was attending the plenary. While he was still in the hall, Juncker referred to the German and French leaders while scolding the parliament.
"If Mr. Muscat would have been Mrs. Merkel — tough to imagine — or Mr. Macron — easier to imagine — we would have had a full house. The parliament is totally ridiculous," Juncker said.
Timmermans said "this is what happens when impassioned politicians speak from the heart" before adding "especially when you are from a smaller country and you believe prime ministers deserve the same level of respect whatever the size of their country."
Gianni Pittella, the leader of the Socialist bloc, said attendance should have been better but added that "whenever we have major events, votes on major files, members of the European parliament are there."