When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently addressed the European Union Parliament and warned of growing threats to democracy, he received an angry backlash from some elected officials who accused him of respond to the recent protest of the anti-vaccine convoy like a dictator.
Public rebukes from a handful of far-right, populist and anti-vaccine members of the European Parliament claiming Trudeau violated civil rights in response to the protest that occupied Ottawa for nearly a month has gone viral on social networks.
Trudeau’s Liberal government invoked the Emergencies Act for the first time in history in February, giving police and other authorities extraordinary powers to disrupt the protest.
The verbal beating came after Trudeau addressed the assembly in Brussels, Belgium, where 705 elected members (MEPs) from the 27 EU member states make up the largest elected assembly in Europe.
The Parliament of the European Union is used to making the news when outspoken members make controversial remarks. Some of these members represent parties that oppose the very existence of the EU.
CBC News examines what was said, who said it, and how the European Parliament is very different from parliaments elsewhere in the democratic world.
What have MPs said about Trudeau?
Describing Trudeau as someone who “trampled” basic human rights and freedoms, Croatian independent MEP Mislav Kolakušić said that Canada once stood for civil rights, but now looks more like a “dictatorship of the worst kind”.
“Under your quasi-liberal boot in recent months,” Kolakušić said, “we have seen how you trample women with horses, how you freeze single parents’ bank accounts so they can’t even pay for education and their children’s medicine, that they can’t afford the utilities, the mortgages for their homes.”
Ontario police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, opened an investigation Feb. 20 after a 49-year-old woman said she was seriously injured by a Toronto Police Service officer in horseback as police evacuated people who had occupied downtown Ottawa.
“Mr Trudeau, you are a disgrace to any democracy,” said German MEP Christine Anderson, political spokesperson for the ID parliamentary group in the European Parliament through her Alternative for Germany party.
Anderson then accused Trudeau of civil rights abuses during the truck convoy protest, calling him a dictator who treats citizens like “terrorists.”
Another Alternative for Germany MEP, Bernhard Zimniok, accused Trudeau of “trampling on democratic rights” by cracking down on people for protesting “disproportionate” public health measures.
Who are the MEPs who accused Trudeau of being a dictator?
Mislav Kolakušić, whose speech to the assembly has gone viral on his Twitter feed, is a failed Croatian presidential candidate and is not affiliated with any political party in the European Parliament. He aligned himself with the anti-vaccine voices inside and outside the assembly.
Reuters reported earlier this year that Kolakušić had accused French President Emmanuel Macron of “killing citizens” through vaccination mandates and that he claimed that “tens of thousands” of Europeans had died from side effects of vaccines during the pandemic.
Reuters said the European medicines regulator pushed back on the claim, describing it as “incorrect” and a “distortion of the data”.
Kolakušić was also one of six MEPs censured by the European Parliament for refusing to present an EU digital COVID certificate to enter the assembly. Anderson was another of the deputies punished in this incident.
Anderson and Zimniok are both members of the Alternative for Germany political party, described by the BBC as a far-right political party that employs the rhetoric “tinged with Nazi accents”.
A German court recently ruled that the party was “a suspected threat to democracy” after an administrative court in Cologne concluded that there were “sufficient indications of unconstitutional aims within the AfD”.
Alternative for Germany is one of the national parties that fall under the Identity and Democracy Group in the European Parliament. With 63 members from 10 countries, it is the fifth largest group in the assembly.
Identity and Democracy is made up of national political parties opposed to the EU. They hold far-right positions on issues such as immigration, EU membership and social protection. The ID group includes the French National Rally, founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen.
What is the European Parliament?
As the second largest elected assembly in the world after the Indian Parliament (which has 788 seats compared to 705 in Europe), the European Parliament is one of the seven institutions of the European Union. And although it is called a parliament, it is more like a city council or the United Nations General Assembly than a parliament in the Westminster tradition.
The assembly sits in two cities: Strasbourg, France and Brussels. She has no prime minister. The person who bears the title of “president” in the European Parliament is in no way a head of government. The Speaker acts more like a Speaker in the Westminster system, presiding over sittings and presiding over debates.
The European Parliament also has no government and opposition parties, so there is no equivalent to cabinet ministers sitting in the assembly.
Unlike national parliaments, the European Parliament cannot propose legislation. This task is reserved for the European Commission, the designated executive branch of the EU which functions as a cabinet and acts on behalf of elected member governments.
The European Parliament can amend or reject legislation, has certain budgetary approval powers and is required to approve certain acts of international cooperation, such as data sharing initiatives and the financing of international development initiatives.
The institution rarely makes the news unless it takes extraordinary political action – such as refusing to approve the EU budget – or unless its members make outlandish or controversial statements.
It also has a tradition of seating MEPs who vehemently oppose the existence of the European Union. Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party and the Brexit Party – political entities united to pull the UK out of the EU – led his party to 29 seats in the European Parliament in 2019.
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