Voting isn’t always boring!

European Parliament
Brussels

The committee that I observed yesterday was fascinating because it was chaired by a Swedish Member of the European Parliament who ran the meeting in Swedish except for four times when something happened. (I’m not sure how to label the “somethings” that “happened” yet.) The first quarter of an hour passed with only the Chairman’s routine procedural commands. His pace was a bit more measured than the other voting times I’ve watched – or maybe I’m acclimating to the speed at which the Members usually dash through these necessary but tedious sessions.
I was in the meeting for 75 minutes (it was scheduled for 3.5 hours but I had other appointments). Twenty of the 23 official languages were interpreted (there was no Gaelic, Maltese, or Slovakian), and as far as I could tell all booths were working at all times. The meeting may have been webcast, so the interpreters would continue working even if the MEPs or staff who requested them were not present.
The languages heard on the floor during the hour and fifteen minutes I was there were:

    Swedish 38 minutes = 50%
    English 19 minutes = 24%
    German 6 minutes = 7.6%
    French 6 minutes = 7.6%
    Portuguese 3 minutes = 3.4%
    Greek 1 minute = 1.3%

Not heard on the floor during the time that I was there: Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Slovenian, or Spanish.
Here are the four things that happened, when the Chairman codeswitched from Swedish to English.

1)
15:32 “It was not carried. That was my fault.” I did not hear the question or comment that elicited this response; I believe it was made on the floor without using the microphone. I do not know, therefore, whether English or another language was used. I am fairly sure that whatever was said was not widely interpreted.

2)
15:43 “Maybe [the previous speaker’s comment] was not a point of order.” The previous speaker had addressed the group first in Greek (I think) then codeswitched to English.
15:44 “That was also not a point of order.” This was in response to another Member’s agreement with the Chair that what the first Member had said was not a point of order, it was an opinion and there were different opinions in the room.

3)
15:45 “Listen to me, we have to vote … once again . . . because for me . . . ”
(there was a pause, some consultation, then) . . . we had a result. We can’t have two results, ok?”
The Chair codeswitched back to Swedish for a minute then
15:47 “We have guests here to make short statements before the appointment. Please, some of you are very excited, I understand, but please, I need to give the floor to our guests (sound of gavel).” A vote happened in between the second and third codeswitching events; probably they are related. One might call this one event, except the vote itself was conducted in Swedish as were all the other votes.

4)
16:04 A bell sounded. The Chair said, “Yea, the other one.” My sense was the bell ringing was an accident and the Chair’s comment was an aside that was picked up by the microphone.

Nearly everyone had their headphones on most of the time, and with both ears. Presumably not many of the Members, staff, or guests present know Swedish.
I have different thoughts about what these observations may mean. I wrote earlier that English may be the language of control, certainly that hypothesis is supported by the timing and apparent purpose for codeswitching in this meeting.
The confusion with whether or not a revote needed to occur or not is fascinating. I think there may have been a problematic moment in the group which manifested in a combination of reactions: there was a brief silence after the electronic vote showed the numbers 21 against 19 for, then some table pounding, then the Chairman’s first statement about voting again, a pause during which applause started then a second statement from the Chair against another vote. I have no idea who was engaging the Chair from the floor, or even whether the matter of re-voting (or not) started from a Member on the floor or with the electronic technology itself. It seems, though, that a breach occurred prior to the vote (two Members making “points of order” which were not actually points of order), the result was a surprise, and a further, temporary decomposition of the entire group lasted for nearly two minutes.
This is a situation when the observations of the working interpreters could add to a potentially significant construction of knowledge.

3 thoughts on “Voting isn’t always boring!”

  1. Today I met with one of the Members who was in this Committee Meeting. I asked what was going on with the “happenings” labeled #2 and #3. His responses confirmed for me that they are related.
    The Member who spoke first in Greek and then in English is the Rapporteur of a controversial bill which is currently written to support a Commission viewpoint that is opposed by one of the larger political groups in the Parliament. Normally, the Member explained, here in the European Parliament when a controversial bill passes or is defeated business tends to go on as usual. This is unlike the national parliament, where people would typically break out in immediate argumentation. (Later today another Member also raised the difference in argumentation between national parliaments and the European Parliament.)
    When I asked why the Chairmen got confused, the Member stated, “I didn’t understand that moment” and moved directly on to another topic.
    These are some of the typical characteristics of a problematic moment: a sudden din, confusion, and an immediate resumption of ‘normal’ interaction.

  2. It is interesting, actually, that there is a mirroring between the large scale group event and the interpersonal (one-to-one) conversation between me and the Member about the event.
    Although the two of us did not repeat the ‘din’ of the original event, there was an assertion of ‘confusion’ and then an immediate transition to something else.
    I believe this is an instance of a phenomenon known in group relations theory as a “parallel process.”

  3. Actually – depending upon how far you want to take this, the “din” may have been repeated in the one-to-one conversation.
    The memory capacity of my laptop maxxed out during our talk and the audiofile was lost.

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