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Page last updated at 21:30 GMT, Tuesday, 20 October 2009 22:30 UK

MEPs relish first question time

By Naomi Grimley
BBC News, Strasbourg

The EC Preisdent, Jose Manuel Barroso, fields questions from MEPs at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France (20 Oct 2009)
Mr Barroso wants to emulate the feel of Britain's PM's question time

"Isn't this a rather wonderful organisation for retired, clapped-out ex-premiers?"

That was one of the more flamboyant questions that European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso had to field in his first ever question time in the EU parliament.

Asking such a question was a British MEP - Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party.

Mr Farage was rather relishing his moment in the sun. He has often complained that the European parliament is too "sterile".

And that is exactly why this new question time has been introduced, to help liven things up.

MEPs know their debates are never going to be cult viewing.

Confrontation

With 22 official languages - and the need for an army of interpreters - the repartee and verbal jousting that is often seen in Britain's House of Commons will never be replicated here in Strasbourg.

But that said, MEPs were delighted when Jose Manuel Barroso agreed to their suggestion of a monthly question time.

"Confrontational and controversial debate is a good contribution to a stronger parliament," Mr Barroso explained to his audience.

As it was, the hour-long question time did not produce much of the "sparring" that the EC president says he wants to see.

By way of some post-match analysis, he explained why that might be.

"It's extremely difficult for me to put all my arguments in one minute answers," he said.

"Especially because most of the time I'm not speaking my own language."

Finding its feet

Strasbourg's question time might need to evolve a bit more as MEPs get into their stride.

At the moment, the first half-hour is for the leaders of the various parliament groupings to ask what they want.

The second half is on a specific theme - this week it was the financial crisis - and any MEP is supposed to be able to "catch the eye" of Jerzy Buzek, the man who chairs the proceedings.

It has to be said, though, that in this first outing even he appeared a bit confused about the format.

But everyone in Strasbourg seems to agree it is a useful innovation which lets MEPs ask questions about more topical subjects - from climate change to unemployment.

That may help the European parliament sound more relevant to the 24-hour news agenda - even if this occasion lacked the booing and jeering that makes Britain's prime minister's question time the famous spectator-sport that it is.



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