Does water hydrate? How can we stop turtles and cats from getting run over by cars? What can be done about the German “muck-spreading” allegedly being smelled in London?
Those are among the most pressing issues that have faced the EU over the last 10 years, at least according to some members of the European Parliament. The questions were asked of the European Commission as part of a process in which MEPs make written inquiries on any subject of their choosing and policymakers in the EU’s executive body must answer them. No matter what the subject.
Now the Commission is asking a question of its own: What can we do to cut down on the huge number of questions we get, and the time and money it takes to answer them?
Defenders say the questions are part of the EU democratic process, and one of the few ways MEPs can voice public concerns about European laws. Leaders of both the Parliament and the Commission say the system is open to abuse.
One thing is certain: There are a lot of questions.
Marlene Mizzi, a Maltese MEP from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, is the most inquisitive parliamentarian, according to public records. Since the beginning of the current legislature in July 2014, she has sent the Commission about 470 written questions on topics ranging from animal protection and discrimination against Roma minorities to “people without digital skills.”
In August, Mizzi asked the Commission whether it would consider limiting the daily slaughter of animals such as turtles and cats “who die every day on European roads as a consequence of the high speed at which vehicles are driven.” (The Commission has yet to answer that one.)
The Commission says it is being overwhelmed with questions from the Parliament’s 751 members. The institution expects to receive a record 17,000 of them in 2015 (the current record is 13,400) and said it would streamline its internal procedures to “increase the efficiency of the handling of parliamentary questions.”
“The Commission attaches great importance to Parliament’s right of democratic scrutiny and to giving replies of high quality to parliamentary questions,” Frans Timmermans, the vice president of the Commission, wrote in June. “However, the ever increasing number of questions does entail considerable costs for the Commission.”
Timmermans’s statement on the issue was itself an answer to a Parliamentary question. It was sent to Slovak MEP Vladimír Maňka (S&D), the shadow rapporteur on the 2016 EU budget, who had questioned the Commission on how it processed parliamentary questions and how much money and people were involved.
According to statistics provided by the Commission, about 13,400 questions were asked in 2013 compared to 10,800 in 2014 (a year in which there were Parliamentary elections and a change in the assembly’s membership) and 6,000 in the first four months of 2015. In the first four months of 2015, 693 Members of the European Parliament submitted an average of nine questions each.
“If the current trend continues and results in some 17,000 parliamentary questions for the year 2015,” Timmermans wrote, “the time spent by the Commission staff in replying to parliamentary questions will represent at least 76 full-time equivalents. This can be expressed as approximately €490 per question.”
Using that math, that means the Commission will spend more than €8 million this year answering the questions, a process that according to Timmermans requires that each reply goes undergoes “attribution, drafting, validation, inter-service coordination, collegiate endorsement, and finally translation.”
Parliamentary questions can be submitted orally during plenary sittings, or in writing with a request for a written answer. MEPs submit their questions to the president of the Parliament on a variety of topics, from migration policies to the increase of the price of fertilizers in Europe. The Commission has six weeks to answer the questions, though many MEPs complain that there are delays in replying.
Under Parliament rules, the questions should not exceed 200 words, be concise and contain an “understandable interrogation.” They should also avoid the use of “offensive” language, not relate to any personal matter and “fall exclusively within the limits of the competences of the institutions as laid down in the relevant Treaties.”
Parliamentary leaders also acknowledge that the inquisition is starting to get out of hand. In 2014, the assembly introduced in its Rules of Procedure a clause to maintain the overall volume of questions within “reasonable limits.”
“We agreed that MEPs should send the Commission fewer questions, as many are being written for purposes other than that of solving real problems,” Maňka said in his written question to Timmermans in June.
But the Parliament may go even further. In an internal memo called “First Reflections on European Parliamentary democracy” that was obtained earlier this year by POLITICO, Klaus Welle, the Parliament’s top staffer, stressed the need to “reduce excess” in some MEP activities. “Written questions and declarations of vote are surely among them,” Welle wrote.
Both Welle and Maňka made reference to the fact that many MEPs appear to be asking a lot of questions because some watchdog websites, such as mepranking.eu, keep track of the work parliamentarians are doing by counting their inquiries as well as their votes.
A spokeswoman for the European Parliament said that rules on the number of questions MEPs can ask would soon be tightened.
“MEPs should be able to focus on their principal task — legislative work — without being distracted by the skewed assessment of their work presented on various websites, which are used by the media to collect data on MEPs’ performance and misrepresent what they do,” Maňka said.
“It does seem lots of MEPs ask pointless questions to get their ‘MEPranking’ up,” said one parliament official who is not entitled to speak publicly about these issues. “It does feel like as the quantity of questions goes up the quality of answers goes down.”
Among the more offbeat questions posed by MEPs was this one from John Stuart Agnew, a member of the Euroskeptic Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group: “Does water hydrate?”
The Commission replied by kicking the ball back to him, saying that in order to answer it would need “specific information on the aspects that the question is aimed to address.”
“It was just tongue-in-cheek, a one-off to see how the Commission would respond to it,” Agnew explained. “I didn’t expect any satisfactory answer.”
Or consider these classic questions from Robert Kilroy-Silk, who served as an independent MEP until 2009: “Does the Commission attribute the death of culture in France to its absorption into the EU?” and “What steps is the Commission taking to prevent German muck-spreading being smelt in London?”
Other questions are more far-reaching, but perhaps easier for the Commission to answer with boilerplate language, such as MEP Daniel Buda’s recent inquiry: “What measures does the Commission envisage, in order to regain the population’s trust in globalisation?”
MEPs, meanwhile, defend the practice as fundamental right and a bulwark of democracy.
“We try to ask short questions in a laconic way, but the answers of the Commission are even more laconic,” said Kostas Chrysogonos, a Greek member of the left-leaning GUE group, who said he had sent more than 130 questions since the beginning of the year.
The Parlamentary questions are “cornerstone of the parliamentary system in a democracy,” said Nessa Childers, an Irish MEP in the S&D group. She added that many of her questions come from “very specific, valid concerns from citizens who face problems with the implementation or lack of implementation of EU law or decisions in their daily lives.”
Other MEPs complain that the Commission is not taking their questions seriously enough.
In June, two members of the European People’s Party, Ingeborg Grässle and Daniel Caspary, noted in the introduction to their written question that the Commission’s Group for Institutional Relations (GRI) had described some MEPs as “idiots,” “fool” or “sometimes even worse.”
The MEPs then asked: “What progress has the GRI made in improving the vocabulary it uses to describe the members of the European Parliament?”
An official reply to Caspary and Grässle’s request was made public on September 4. It was signed by Jean-Claude Juncker “on behalf of the European Commission.”
The answer was somewhat cryptic. Juncker said the Commission had called on its staff to refrain from “any action or behavior which might reflect adversely upon his position.”
But he also told MEPs that officials must keep “the right to freedom of expression with due respect to the principles of loyalty and impartiality.”
They just might need to phrase it as a question.
Ryan Heath contributed to this article.
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