What can empty chairs do about freedom of expression?

Ana Gomes was talking to a bunch of empty chairs, too. And empty chairs cannot be blamed for not caring very much about things like ‘evidence’… can they?

Funny things seem to happen to people who get elected to the European Parliament. Right now, for instance, there’s a plenary debate on ‘Brexit’ being streamed live from Strasbourg on the EP website. People on my newsfeed are already sharing snippets of it – especially a speech by a British MEP who ‘took Nigel Farage to the cleaners’ – almost as if to hold this debate up as a sterling example of ‘European democracy in action’.

Yet when I followed the debate online, what struck me most was the overwhelming preponderance of empty seats. By my count, there were maybe 25 MEPs present in the entire House – out of a total of 750 – and most of them were Eurosceptics (including Nigel Farage, naturally: who distinguished himself from most of his detractors by actually showing up for the discussion).

This was especially evident by the ‘applause’ that greeted the aforementioned speech’s conclusion. It was almost like a chorus of crickets chirping in the background: you could literally count the perfunctory, unenthusiastic claps on the fingers of one hand.

Where was everyone else, I wonder? This is, after all, the same European Parliament that talks about ‘Brexit’ as if it were the end of the entire cosmos as we know it. Yet give them an opportunity to discuss it in the European Union’s equivalent of a democratic, legislative assembly… and suddenly, around 95% of them discover that ‘having a Cappuccino at Place Luxembourg’ is a good deal higher on their personal list of priorities.

Then they all scratch their heads in bewilderment, when they suddenly realise that the detested Eurosceptics are making gargantuan inroads across the length and breadth of Europe… while their own support is dwindling by the second. And yeah, it sort of confuses me, too. Who would have ever guessed, that a bunch of dedicated politicians who are committed to their cause – enough to actually be there, representing their constituents, when it is discussed in Parliament – would prove more popular among voters than a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings who never seem to show up when they are needed most?

I don’t know: must be one of those things we are all destined to die without ever fully understanding…

And by now you might even be thinking… ah, but hang on a second. This could easily just have been a one-off. Maybe the EP is bursting at the seams on all other occasions; but this once, there was something else on at the same time… something earth-shattering enough to eclipse even an EP debate about the one issue that currently threatens to tear the EU apart.

Like… um… a football match on TV, perhaps? Or maybe a Pixies reunion concert at the Botanique… (Heck, I myself would choose a Pixies concert over a debate with Nigel Farage any day of the week… but then again, I’m not paid a handsome salary, courtesy of the European taxpayer, to discuss important matters in the European Parliament, now am I?)

Meanwhile, even a cursory glance at any other streamed EP debate (regardless of subject) will reveal more or less the same pattern. Recently, for instance, the European Parliament held a debate about Malta’s ‘rule of law’ situation. The debate itself was sparked by a visit to Malta’s by the EP’s ‘rule of law commission’, and it ended with a vote on a report drawn up by the same entity.

This time, the roll-call did not add up to more than 15 MEPs. All six of Malta’s representatives were there, naturally – after all, they’re probably the only ones who still take that institution even remotely seriously – and then, literally a handful of other people… scattered across the chamber haphazardly, like they had just landed there after falling off the back of a truck.

So, when Miriam Dalli locked horns with Ana Gomes… and everyone in Malta got excited about it, like they were about to enter a mud-wrestling arena… well, to all other purposes they may as well have been having an idle chat in the lift. No one was listening. No one was even there to take note of the individual arguments, before voting on the issue under discussion.

Strangely, however, when it came to the actual vote a couple of days later… suddenly, all 750 MEPs turned up en masse. It was a full house. And the overwhelming majority of those 750 voted in favour of the report… without having listened to any of the arguments or counter-arguments; and very evidently without even bothering to check how much of this report was even true.

How many of those MEPs took their vote on the basis of Ana Gomes’ claim that ‘the persons behind Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder have not been identified or arrested’? Were they even aware that three arrests were made within two months of the murder; that all three suspects are on trial as we speak; that a mountain of evidence has so far been presented in court, and that all of this evidence points in the
direction of an organised criminal network involved in a Malta-Libya-Sicily fuel smuggling racket?

None of this was mentioned by Gomes, nor even featured in the rule of law committee’s report. Miriam Dalli and Alfred Sant both brought it up in their own interventions, as you’d expect… but they may as well not have bothered, because – let’s face it – they were ultimately arguing with a bunch of empty chairs.  

Perhaps the most extraordinary (unheard) argument to be made in that (unattended) debate, was Gomes’s claim that the Maltese government ‘was doing everything in its power to get the three suspects acquitted’. Strange she would say that, because from where I’m sitting, it looks a whole lot like what Gomes is trying to do herself. For over a year now, she has been assiduously undermining the legitimacy of the entire process that resulted in those arrests; she has insinuated that the suspects have somehow been scapegoated to ensure that the ‘real’ culprits go unpunished; that there is a ‘plan to ensure they are released after 20 months’ detention’; and she has even argued that the entire judicial process is itself unfit for purpose (suggesting that any verdict by the local courts, in any case, is automatically suspect).

To date, of course, she has not presented so much as a jot of evidence to support even the tiniest of those claims. But then again.. why the hell should she, anyway? Ana Gomes was talking to a bunch of empty chairs, too. And empty chairs cannot be blamed for not caring very much about things like ‘evidence’… can they?

The irony in all this is that one of those earlier predictions may well turn out to be self-fulfilling... and probably in a good deal less than 20 months. There is now more than a fair chance that those three suspects may indeed be acquitted: too much doubt has been cast on the circumstances of their arrest, and the intention behind their prosecution.

Already, their defence lawyers are looking into possible legal loopholes to have the charges dismissed on technicalities (and lest I am misunderstood: that’s just another way of saying they are doing their job). Just this morning, they argued in court that the ‘note verbale’ was taken in the absence of a lawyer… and that, therefore, their clients did not understand the full implications of making their statements to the police (effectively rendering those statements inadmissible as evidence).

You can’t realistically blame them for trying that tack; especially when so many criminal convictions (mostly involving drug trafficking) have already been successfully overturned on the same grounds.  

But the defence counsel has its own, naturally inbuilt reasons for trying to get those three men acquitted. What’s the European Parliament’s excuse?

I am beginning to suspect that it all boils down to simple ignorance of the basic, most fundamental legal principles. Do MEPs like Ana Gomes, Sven Giegold, Sophie in 't Veld, etc., even understand that – by pouring so much baseless doubt on the entire judicial process surrounding this murder case – they are only providing the defence counsel with all the ammunition it needs to call for a mistrial?

Well, unlike 95% of the MEPs who went on to vote on that resolution, I followed the debate in the European Parliament. On that basis I can only conclude that… yes, they do know.

They must. The rule of law commission visited Malta twice; they have no conceivable excuse for not being aware of the evidence presented in court, and where it all points. Yet they there all were, in the European Parliament, passionately arguing with a bunch of empty chairs that… no, it all points somewhere else.

Ah well… on the plus side, at least they had a debate about Malta’s rule of law issues (well, 15 out of 750 did, anyway). To date, I have not heard about any plans to debate the arrest of Julian Assange in another EU member state, and its ugly implications for freedom of expression in the EU. It seems the European Parliament is suddenly no longer as keen to debate the collapse of European rule of law… when the orders to suppress freedom of expression in Europe come directly from Donald Trump.

And perhaps that’s just as well, because… well, what can a bunch of empty chairs do about any of that, anyway? Except maybe make it just that little bit harder for the justice system to actually run its full course, unimpeded by misinformed nonsense?

Quite frankly, it would be better to just leave those chairs empty, and not debate anything at all.

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