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600: the price of Free Speech in Strasbourg

Thursday, 13th March 2008

I have blogged previously about our demonstration for a referendum, in the parliament's plenary session in Strasbourg in December, and the subsequent disciplinary hearings for fourteen Members, including myself. I have been waiting several weeks for the Sword of Damocles to fall, and yesterday it did, in the form of a polite letter from the President of the parliament Hans-Gert Poettering MEP (HGP), advising me that I was to be fined over 600.

I am considering whether to appeal (as I can, under parliamentary rules), and there are good grounds for doing so.

So far as I am aware no MEP has complained of my behaviour in December.

HGP himself was witness, accuser, judge and jury in the case, defying the rules of natural justice. He admitted in the hearing that the charges were based on what he personally had observed from the Chair. But his powers of observation are open to challenge. For a start, he only indicted fourteen members, when on a conservative estimate at least sixty engaged vigorously in the activity. Indeed one colleague, Nigel Farage MEP, who was prominent in the demonstration, was so offended at not being indicted that he rose subsequently on a point of order to demand to know why he was omitted (he is still waiting for an answer). Dozens, like Farage, demonstrated but were not accused. Several Conservative MEPs (in HGP's EPP group) demonstrated, but the only Conservative indicted was non-inscrit -- myself.

Even more absurdly, one of the accused observed from the Chair by HGP, Andreas Molzer, an Austrian non-inscrit MEP, was actually in Frankfurt that day, not in the parliament at all.

The trouble at the demo was partly HGP's fault. It is not unusual for MEPs to demonstrate in the chamber by raising placards and posters -- indeed it happened again yesterday, on another issue -- and no action is usually taken. But the parliament cannot tolerate dissent, or sceptics. We had intended to hold a dignified protest against the Lisbon Treaty, but HGP over-reacted by asking the ushers to confiscate the banners and placards. This led directly to the general argy-bargy and disruption, and to the shouting, which had been neither planned nor intended.

It appears that widely differing sentences have been handed down. Some of the accused have been merely reprimanded. One has been docked 1000, another only 400, while several including myself have been hit for 600. There is no evidential basis for these discrepancies. They are based simply on HGP's arbitrary whim -- and we have already seen how unreliable and partial his observations were.

Poettering's decisions are based on wholly inadequate evidence. They are partial (in both senses of the word). And they give the impression (far be it from me to accuse the President of the parliament) that he is not using his arbitrary powers in the interests of fairness, but to settle scores with those he has taken against. We used to be a rules-based institution. HGP's assumption of arbitrary powers, and his exercise of those powers, put our rules-based status in question.