02 July 2019 | Staff | Al Jazeera
For many, taking your seat in a democratic parliament as an elected representative of “the people” is a moment in which to take great pride, aware of the honour and privilege bestowed upon you by your constituents. One may even feel humbled by the occasion.
For others, however, it is a moment to make a symbolic protest against the existence of the very chamber to which you have been elected.
For British right-wing populist Nigel Farage and his band of Brexit Party MEPs, Tuesday’s opening of the European Parliament fell very much into the latter category.
Never a group known to miss the opportunity for a headline-grabbing stunt, the 29 representatives turned their backs on the parliamentary chamber as the European anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, was played by a group of five young musicians, while other parliamentarians stood in dignified silence.
Outside the parliament, at least 4,000 demonstrators waved the Catalan flag. Among them was Carles Puigdemont, the former head of the Catalan regional government who lives in Belgium to escape a Spanish arrest warrant after leading an attempted secession in 2017.
The separatists were protesting in support of three Catalan MEPs who have been blocked by Madrid from taking their seats.
The Brexit Party had campaigned in the European elections last month on a vehemently Eurosceptic platform. Their message found great resonance in Britain, a nation deeply divided over the decision to leave the European Union, and the failure of the government to withdraw from the bloc while fulfilling the many promises offered by the successful leave campaign before the 2016 Brexit referendum.
The Brexit Party MEPs who entered the European Parliament in the French city of Strasbourg for the first time on Tuesday will now start collecting salaries of $9,900 a month, before tax. If Britain still hasn’t left the EU within a year, they will also be eligible to receive a salary-based pension, calculated on a sliding scale according to how long they have served in office.
Farage, who has been an MEP since 1999, is eligible for a pension worth 70 percent of his $118,800 salary – currently worth $83,200 – upon his retirement, or Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, whichever comes first. The average salary for those in full-time work in the United Kingdomis $45,700.
The 751-seat parliament is more fragmented than ever, reflecting the depth of political and social divisions felt across Europe, after a vote in May that saw solid gains by the liberals and Greens as well as the far right and Eurosceptics.
As the parliament opened in Strasbourg, the third day of talks were due to begin in Brussels, the Belgian capital, between EU leaders hammering out negotiations over who should take the top jobs in the 28-nation bloc.
“There are immense difficulties here,” said Al Jazeera’s Nadim Baba, reporting from Brussels. “The meeting has again been delayed. Donald Tusk, the head of the EU Council, is having meetings with EU leaders to try and find a compromise, and that’s something that’s in short supply right now.”
The impasse so far has largely been between eastern and western member states, with France and Germany’s preferred candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, the socialist Dutch diplomat Frans Timmermans, blocked by countries including the Czech Republic – whose president said Timmermans’s appointment would be a “catastrophe” – and Bulgaria.
But Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov shook off criticism on Tuesday morning, saying he hoped for a compromise.
“For the time being, we know who are we against – which is everyone. Let’s hope today we will find a ground to unite,” Borissov told reporters in Brussels.
“They often like to criticise the countries from Eastern Europe, here we see it in full volume. They have mocked us enough so I hope today there will be a decision.”
European politics is being shaken up by the rise of smaller parties on both left and right.
“What usually happens is that a proposal [nominating the senior positions of the EU] is made in Brussels and it’s rubber-stamped here in Strasbourg,” said Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from the European Parliament.
“But now, in addition to the Brexit Party’s protest, we have the Catalans out here protesting because Puigdemont isn’t allowed to take his seat. The centre-right bloc within the parliament itself is still the largest grouping, but it lost influence in these recent elections both to the Greens on one side and the far-right on the other.
“And all these groupings are saying ‘we’re not going to be a rubber-stamping exercise any more’ – and there is an argument to be made that this new way of doing things is more representative of ordinary people’s sentiments in Europe, and is actually good for democracy.”