There are many MEPs who would like the parliamentary hearings for nominated European commissioners to be compelling theatre, but few of them have much idea about how to stage a political drama.
What we are about to see in the coming days is that the Parliament’s architecture is ill-suited to such performances. The way the actors are positioned on a stage affects the dramaturgy – the way the story is told.
The essential challenge for the Parliament’s stage directors is how should a parliamentary committee convey an antagonistic relationship in which the would-be commissioner is on one side of the divide and the MEPs on the other? Consider, for example, hearings in the US Senate, or in a committee of the British parliament. The ideal alignment is to have the committee members on one side of a table, with the witness or witnesses facing them.
The European Parliament, however, struggles to achieve such an alignment. The starting-point is that the committee rooms are mostly constructed in a fan-shape; some of them are circular. Most have raked seating, sloping down to the front, but with a podium at the front raised several feet above the other desks. These rooms elevate the leadership of the committee: the chairman or chairwoman and the vice-chairs, who sit at a long desk on this podium, facing the rest of the committee.
None of this makes it easy to fix where the witness should sit in a way that would have the whole of the committee aligned against him or her.
If the commissioner-candidate were sat at this podium, at the front of the room, then he or she would be put on the same level, and facing in the same direction, as the leaders of the committee. This is not an antagonistic alignment.
What most committees will opt for next week is a strange hybrid: with the candidate sitting at a desk beneath the podium, facing outwards to the rest of the room, ie, facing the same direction as the leaders of the committee, but sitting in front of them. Again, this is not an antagonistic alignment. Or at least, only partially so – the candidate faces some of the MEPs but not all of them. (Indeed, it is an alignment that can make it difficult for the person chairing the meeting to keep control.) It is also an alignment that does not send clear visual clues to the watching outsiders. The MEPs style themselves as champions of the people, but they do not invite the audience to side with them.
At heart, the European Parliament is not confrontational. Neither in Strasbourg nor in Brussels are its rooms designed – as many national parliaments are – to show a government on one side and the opposition parties on the other. The two sides of the House of Commons (the UK’s lower house of parliament) are famously divided by two sword lengths and a bit more. The European Parliament’s chamber, on the other hand, is a hemicycle.
If the hearings next week fail to attain the heights of drama that MEPs are hoping for, it will be tempting to blame the performers – the candidates and their questioners. But it will not be their fault alone: do not forget to blame the theatre and the directors.
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