Has the world gone topsy turvey? It's safe to say there is little that unites the rabidly Eurosceptic Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party with pro-Europeans. Yet during newly-appointed European Council president Herman van Rumpuy's first appearance before the European Parliament this week, Farage was the only MEP to even remotely express the frustration many Europhiles are feeling with the presidential selection. And when Nigel Farage is the only one willing to say what the europhiles are thinking, it's a strange time indeed!
Farage delivered yesterday a blisteringly insulting attack on the new "EU President", telling him he has the "charisma of a damp rag" and the "appearance of a low-grade bank clerk". Now, such personal attacks may be commonplace in Westminster, but that is not how the European Parliament operates (or any other parliament I know of! Except maybe Australia...). MEPs today have been furious about the outburst. The parliamen's president is considering disciplinary action against him, and has summoned him for a meeting on Tuesday to discuss the incident.
Of course, disciplinary action is likely exactly what Farage wants, as it would be popular with the Eurosceptic British public and make him look like a martyr for British independence. And with UKIP aiming to win some MP seats in Westminster in the upcoming UK election in April, it's no accident that Farage is using the vicious language of Westminster politics now. UKIP came in second in last June's euro elections, and with such widespread voter disillusionment, this will likely be a good year for small political parties in the British election.
But here's what puzzles me about his little outburst: if anything, the initial part of his rant seems to be oddly pro-EU. Outbursts on the floor of the parliament are nothing new for UKIP (though they've never before been this vicious and personal), and Farage was certainly following the usual UKIP script of describing the EU as an evil undemocratic empire. But essentially his accusation was nonsensical and contradictory. Just as soon as he was done criticising van Rompuy as an ineffective pipsqueek, he then made the allegation that he would be some kind of eurodictator trampling over the rights of member states. Well which one is it?
If Farage is so concerned about the Lisbon Treaty instituting a powerful "EU President", he if anything should be happy that the leaders have chosen a "damp rag" of a man who will likely shape the presidency post into a rather inconsequential ceremonial position. What exactly would Farage have prefered, that a large personality like Tony Blair or Jean-Claude Juncker have been given the position and made it very powerful? That seems to be what he's implying here.
It's funny because his criticism mirrors what Europhiles in Brussels have been complaining about since the appointment of Van Romuy was announced. As I've written about before, the appointment was a fudge by EU leaders, specifically Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, who did not want to see a large personality shaping the presidency position into something that would threaten their own control over the EU. Europhiles and EU federalists, who had been excited about the prospect of finally having a major world figure who could give Europe a powerful voice on the world stage, have been left disappointed and disillusioned by an appointment which was obviously meant to maintain the status quo and is unlikely to give the EU any extra heft.
Yet during yesterday's comments in parliament, the only person expressing that frustration was Nigel Farage. Questions focused mainly on the economy or the Greek crisis. Perhaps that makes the most sense. After all, what is the point of naval-gazing now? Van Rompuy has already been selected, and the parliament does not have any role in his selection process. But given the remarkable anticlimax that this appointment appeared to be, wasn't there one other MEP who wanted to express some dissapointment?
Farage's accusations were for obvious domestic political reasons. And they will probably work, given that this has received extensive coverage in the British media today. But watching these debates today, I couldn't help but feel that Farage, in the first part of his statement at least, was the only one willing to point out that the emperor had no clothes on.
Whod-a-thunk-it. Nigel Farage: champion of the europhiles.