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Summary

  1. Scroll down the page for text, video and social media commentary on 2016 at the European Parliament.

Live Reporting

By Paul Seddon

All times stated are UK

A new dawn?

The sun rises at the European Parliament in Strasbourg
European Parliament

As far as MEPs were concerned, 2016 was supposed to be the year when the EU got back on track after lurching between multiple crises the year before.

However, events would take a dramatic turn during what was to become a decisive year.

Britain’s vote to leave the EU, coming around halfway through the year, is the most significant fulcrum in any political year for a generation.

Aside from Brexit, the political and legislative impact of the ongoing migration crisis and relations with non-EU countries would dominate the agenda.

And as the year came to an end, the two-year “grand coalition” between the centre-right and centre-left groups seemingly came to an end, as candidates lined up to replace outgoing president Martin Schulz.

But before all that…

Polish PM defends court changes

19 January 2016

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and European Parliament President Martin Schulz
European Parliament

Only two months after taking office, new Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo came to Strasbourg to defend her government’s changes to the country’s constitutional courts and media laws.

The intervention came six days after the EU Commission launched an unprecedented probe into whether the new legislation had violated the rule of law.

Ms Szydlo told MEPs that the move to appoint constitutional court judges was an internal matter for Poland, and changes to Poland's public broadcaster would improve objectivity.

But a number of them were less than impressed, accusing her government of undermining checks on government power.

The European Parliament would debate the matter three more times before the year’s end, with no resolution to the EU-Poland dispute in sight.

The EU Commission says the situation has not been remedied but has so far stopped short of asking for the country to be punished under EU rules.

The Polish government ended the year as it began: denying a power grab and accusing the EU’s institutions of interference. 

Tusk calls Cameron’s renegotiation deal ‘legally binding’

24 February 2016

European Council President Donald Tusk
European Parliament

At the first plenary sitting since David Cameron secured changes to the UK’s EU status, debate raged about the status of his renegotiation deal.

European Council President Donald Tusk said the deal was legally binding and “cannot be annulled by the European Court of Justice".

That put him on a collision course with Brexit-backing Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who had warned earlier that same day that without treaty changes the deal could be unpicked by EU judges.

Downing Street had said it had got backing from the leaders of the Parliament’s three biggest groups for the legislative changes required to give effect to some parts of the deal.

But Italian MEP Gianni Pitella, who leads the centre-left political group, said planned curbs on child benefit payments to EU migrants would have to be “handled with care”.

And Brexit-backing MEP Diane Dodds, who leads the DUP delegation, warned that the assembly would be able to “unravel” Mr Cameron’s plans.    

In the event, of course, disputes about the legal status of the agreement would soon become rather academic... 

MEPs criticise EU migrant deal with Turkey

9 March 2016

Volunteers walking on a pile of lifejackets left behind by refugees and migrants in Greece
AFP/Getty Images

In March, the EU brokered a controversial deal with Turkey in its efforts to get a grip on the migration crisis at Europe’s borders.

Under the agreement, Syrian migrants arriving in Greece would be sent back across the Aegean if they failed to apply for asylum or their claim was rejected.

For every Syrian migrant sent back to Turkey, one Syrian already in Turkey would be resettled in the EU.

Turkey was also promised aid for refugee camps, visa-free travel to the Schengen area by June and “re-energised” talks on EU membership.

Euro Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis told MEPs that the deal was a “political response” to mass migration – and would turn out to be a “game-changer”.

But leading MEPs savaged the deal during a heated debate, questioning its legality under international law and the political risks of cosying up to Ankara.

The Parliament’s group leaders later issued a statement refusing to pass the visa waiver until Turkey had fulfilled all the EU’s conditions.

The visa deal is still to be implemented. 

Lift off for airline data sharing law

14 April 2016

Lufthansa plane taxiing across the runway at the airport in Munich
EPA

After years of opposition, MEPs finally passed legislation to set up an EU-wide system for sharing airline passenger data.

EU governments had been pushing for the scheme as a means to track suspicious itineraries from potential terror suspects.

Its passage through the Parliament had been held up over questions over privacy concerns.

In the end, a deal became possible after centre-left and liberal MEPs agreed to back the scheme after securing agreement on regulation to strengthen EU data protection laws.

MEPs had come under renewed pressure to pass the deal following terror attacks in Paris and Brussels. 

But Green MEPs refused to back it...

German Green MEP tweeted

MEPs debate overhaul of EU migration rules

11 May 2016

Migrants at a detention center in the northern Greek village of Fylakio
AP

In the spring, the European Commission announced its long-promised overhaul of the EU’s Dublin migration rules.

The Dublin system, under which migrants have to claim asylum in the EU country of their arrival, had effectively broken down after Germany said it would take all Syrian asylum seekers in 2015.

The basic requirements of the regulation would be kept, but with a new automatic relocation scheme to kick in if a country receives more than 150% of its annual "share" of asylum seekers, enforced by big fines for states that refused to comply.

An initial debate at the following plenary sitting revealed some scepticism about how the latest revision would work.

Some MEPs criticised the size of the €250,000 fine that countries would have to pay for each asylum seeker from their quota that remains in another member state.

Others pledged to amend the circumstances under which an EU state would be able to transfer unaccompanied children to another.

Agreement on the plans among member states is yet to be found, and MEPs have not yet voted on the legislation either. 

Farage to MEPs: ‘You’re not laughing now’

28 June 2016

The Parliament held a hastily-convened emergency sitting following June’s Brexit vote, marked by angry exchanges and repeated bouts of heckling.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage was not in the mood for magnanimity, accusing his colleagues of being “in denial”, adding that the chamber was full of people who had never done "proper jobs". 

EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called on the UK to “clarify its position”, and MEPs passed a motion calling for the UK government to trigger formal exit talks as soon as possible. 

EU Border Force gets the green light

6 July 2016

Lifeboat in the Mediterranean
AP

Before breaking up for the summer, MEPs gave their imprimatur to legislation setting up a new EU border and coast guard agency.

The new force will have a reserve pool of 1,500 guards provided by national border agencies, with a mandate to intervene if member states are deemed to be failing to protect the EU's external borders.

Strengthening the EU's external borders has become a top priority in the efforts to maintain the passport-free Schengen area, with a growing list of countries deciding to reimpose border controls.

Although the new force’s expanded right to intervene had aroused controversy when first announced, the law was signed off by 483 votes to 181 with 48 abstentions.

During negotiations on the law, MEPs secured a more important role for themselves in the procedure for selecting the force’s executive director. 

Juncker delivers ‘state of union’ speech

14 September 2016

Jean-Claude Juncker made his second “state of the union” speech as President of the European Commission, warning that there was still "not enough union" in the EU.

He used the high-profile address to unveil a number of policy proposals, including:

  • a new headquarters to co-ordinate EU military missions
  • a 100,000-strong EU youth volunteer force
  • a doubling in the size of the EU’s flagship investment fund
  • the ambition of free wi-fi in public spaces in all EU states within four years

He dismissed the idea that the Brexit vote in the EU could lead to the disintegration of the bloc itself, telling MEPs: 

The European union, as such, is not at risk."

Not everyone was impressed…

UKIP MEP tweeted

Commission considers free railpass idea

4 October 2016

A high-speed Eurostar train exits the Channel tunnel near Calais
Reuters

Among the various policy suggestions floated by MEPs during the year, one in particular hit the headlines and attracted both enthusiasm and scorn.

Leading German MEP Manfred Weber had suggested that all teenagers should receive a free Interrail pass on their 18th birthday to change their perception of Europe.

He claimed that allowing youngsters to travel around the continent for free would give them a more positive vision of the EU.

During the month’s plenary sitting, EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc didn’t dismiss the idea entirely, telling MEPs she was “ready to explore” ways to make the proposal work.

But she said that 300,000 people currently buy Interrail passes every year for a cost of €20-480 each, meaning that 

Extending access to all 18-year-olds for free would therefore present many challenges which require further analysis."

UKIP’s Steven Woolfe collapses after ‘altercation’

6 October 2016

Steven Woolfe lying face-down on a walkway inside the European Parliament building
ITV News

After MEPs left following the day’s voting session, reports circulated that the UKIP MEP Steven Woolfe had collapsed outside the chamber after an “altercation” with party colleague Mike Hookem.

The next morning’s front pages and television bulletins were full of the disturbing image of an unconscious Mr Woolfe prostrate inside the Parliament building.

Mr Woolfe accused Mr Hookem of landing a “blow" to his face in a row at a party meeting – Mr Hookem admitted that a "scuffle" took place but denied throwing a punch at his colleague.

Mr Woolfe later quit UKIP completely, saying there was “something rotten” in the party.

Following an internal inquiry, UKIP said it could not "verify" whether the two MEPs had fought.

The matter has now been referred to the French police, after the European Parliament said its own investigation found the two men's account of events "diverged substantially". 

MEPs call for Turkey’s EU membership talks to be frozen

24 November 2016

EU external relations chief Federica Mogherini
European Parliament
EU external relations chief Federica Mogherini said talks should continue

Relations between the EU and Turkey were uneasy at the best of times, and became considerably more strained following July’s failed coup against the Turkish government.

MEPs had watched on with unease as in response the government launched mass arrests and dismissals of thousands of civil servants, academics and journalists.

With support for Turkish EU membership collapsing, the European Parliament went one stage further than condemnation and called for the country’s accession talks to be suspended.

The non-binding vote was dismissed as "worthless" by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the EU Commission said it still supported keeping the accession process going. 

Schulz exit sparks race for replacement

24 November 2016

Martin Schulz leaves a press conference in Brussels
Reuters

As the year neared its end, German MEP Martin Schulz confirmed that he would not be seeking a third term as the Parliament's president.

At a press conference in Brussels, he announced that he would instead be running as a candidate in next year's German parliament elections. 

His decision not to run for another extension of his five-year time in the post fired the starting gun on what could prove a testy battle to replace him. 

The centre-left group announced that they would not be honouring a pledge to let a centre-right politician succeed him, instead putting their leader Gianni Pitella up as a candidate. 

A battle between the two could spell the end of the "grand coalition" which since 2014 has smoothed the passage of EU laws through the assembly. 

The election will be held in January next year. 

MEPs award human rights prize to Yazidi activists

13 December 2016

Brexit negotiator threatens separate talks with UK

14 December 2016

The final plenary sitting of the year hinted at a weak point in the testudo-like alliance between the EU's institutions over forthcoming Brexit talks. 

Enraged at reports that European Parliament representatives might only be invited to preliminary Brexit meetings, the assembly's Brexit observer Guy Verhofstadt warned that leaders needed to involve MEPs "from day one". 

Warning that Parliament's ratification of the final agreement should not be taken for granted, he said the assembly could conduct its own negotiations with the UK. 

It is not immediately clear how this would work, given that leaders decided to appoint the European Commission as the EU's main negotiating body. 

But in a message to leaders, he told the chamber:

If that's what the heads of state want, we're going to do it - parallel negotiations."