My Column – The curious incident of ghost voting in the European Parliament

During the mammoth voting session last Wednesday (I believe members of the European Parliament had to vote over 600 times in that one session alone) a point of order was raised by an eagle-eyed MEP from the centre-right bloc in the Parliament.

Anna Maria Corazza Bildt noticed that Marine Le Pen (leader of the French Front National) had been absent from the chamber.  Yet it seemed that she had been voting anyway.  How could this be?  She demanded an investigation.  Rightly so.

I’m a believer in democracy.  And however subversive of democracy the European Union might be, however much the European Parliament might lack the proper authority of a democratic chamber, this kind of ‘ghost voting’ is an affront to democracy.  First the facts should be established, then the guilty persons identified, and then the appropriate consequence should be applied.  I’m not sitting in judgement on this one, so I can make my personal view clear with no conflict of interest: I am disgusted and appalled that anyone could engage in such ‘ghost voting’.  They aren’t denying that it occurred.

The next day, prior to the start of the votes, the same centre-right MEP – Anna Maria Corazza Bildt – rose to announce the results of the investigation, and to confirm that wrongdoing had taken place.  The affront to democracy had now been compounded by an affront to justice; it’s fundamentally alien to the principles of natural justice for the person demanding an investigation to be the one to announce its conclusions.

Marine Le Pen gave an explanation, of sorts, for what happened.  She accepted that the  ‘ghost voting’ had taken place.  She had left her voting card in the machine when she stepped out of the chamber for a moment and her colleague had pressed the buttons on the voting machine.  Leaders of political groups or national parties do have to step out from time to time, if a crisis develops in their home country.  In a 2½ hour session of voting, sometimes a call of nature can hit anyone.

Walking around an empty Parliament chamber, you do usually see voting cards left in machines either accidentally or if they intend to quickly return to the chamber.  I’d estimate that 5% or so of MEPs on any given day leave a voting card in the machine.

There are only two possibilities:

  1. Marine Le Pen asked a colleague to place votes on her behalf
  2. The colleague acted alone in doing so

If 1 is the case, then both are equally culpable.  If 2 is the case, then only the colleague is guilty.

The President of the European Parliament has the power, with the agreement of the Bureau, to fine members who breach the rules; it is accepted by all concerned that the rules have been breached and I expect that some sanction will follow.

The situation was compounded when – on behalf of the Parliament’s Bureau – another member rose to speak.  Instead of dealing with the matter at hand, he began by insulting Marine Le Pen and accusing her of hating democracy.  Those sitting in judgement on a matter should not express a public opinion, let alone make such remarks.  We all agree that the offence committed is appalling, but due process must be followed.

It rather reminds me of the cowboy accused of stealing a horse. One of the cowboys said, “Let’s hang him.” The others replied, “Hold on a moment. Before we hang him, he deserves a fair trial. Then we’ll hang him.”

Members of the French Front National may have acted like cowboys in this respect, but even they deserve a fair trial.  Fair trials are for everyone, not just those that you happen to approve of.

Immediately afterwards, another MEP walked across the chamber towards Marine Le Pen, aimed his mobile phone in her face and started taking photographs of her.  This unparliamentary behaviour was also unhelpful.

Within the context of the unfolding shambles, one British Labour MEP took to Twitter to condemn their entire group for the actions of one or two individuals.  There’s nothing like overstating your case.

I started off being disgusted by the undemocratic actions of the ‘ghost voting’.  I was soon almost as disgusted by the lack of due process in the European Parliament.

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