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 members who accused him of responding to the recent anti-vaccine mandate convoy protest like a dictator.
The public rebukes by 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 almost a month went viral on social media.
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 thrashing came after Trudeau addressed the assembly in Brussels, Belgium, where 705 elected members (MEPs) from the 27 EU member states constitute the largest elected assembly in Europe.
The European Union Parliament has a history of making news when outspoken members make controversial remarks. Some of those members represent parties that oppose the existence of the EU itself.
CBC News takes a look at what was said, who said it and how the European Parliament is vastly different from parliaments elsewhere in the democratic world.
What did MEPs say about Trudeau?
Describing Trudeau as someone who “tramples” fundamental human rights and freedoms, Independent Croatian MEP Mislav Kolakušić said Canada once stood for civil rights but now seems more like a “dictatorship of the worst kind.”
“Under your quasi-liberal boot in recent months,” Kolakušić said, “we watched how you trample women with horses, how you block the bank accounts of single parents so that they can’t even pay their children’s education and medicine, that they can’t pay utilities, mortgages for their homes.”
Ontario’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, launched an investigation on Feb. 20 after a 49-year-old woman reported being seriously injured by a Toronto Police Service officer on a horse as police were clearing out people who had occupied Ottawa’s downtown core.
“Mr. Trudeau, you are a disgrace for any democracy,” said German MEP Christine Anderson, the political spokesperson for the ID parliamentary group in the European Parliament through her party Alternative for Germany.
Anderson went on to accuse Trudeau of civil rights violations during the trucker convoy protest, calling him a dictator who treats citizens as “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 in the assembly went viral on his Twitter feed, is a failed Croatian presidential candidate and is not affiliated with any political party in the European Parliament. He has aligned himself with anti-vaccine voices inside and outside of the assembly.
Reuters reported earlier this year that Kolakušić had accused French President Emmanuel Macron of “murdering citizens” through vaccine mandates and that he claimed “tens of thousands of” Europeans had died from vaccine side-effects during the pandemic.
Reuters said Europe’s drug regulator pushed back against that claim, describing it as “incorrect” and a “misrepresentation of 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 MPs punished in that incident.
Both Anderson and Zimniok are members of the political party Alternative for Germany, described by the BBC as a far-right political party that employs rhetoric “tinged with Nazi overtones.”
A German court ruled recently that the party is “a suspected threat to democracy” after an administrative court in Cologne found that there are “sufficient indications of anti-constitutional goals 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 domestic political parties opposed to the EU. They hold far-right positions on issues like immigration, EU membership and social welfare. The ID group includes France’s Rassemblement National party, which was founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen.
What is the European Parliament?
As the second-largest elected assembly in the world after India’s Parliament (which has 788 seats to Europe’s 705), the European Parliament is one of the seven institutions of the European Union. And while it’s called a parliament, it more closely resembles a city council or the UN General Assembly than a parliament in the Westminster tradition.
The assembly sits in two cities: Strasbourg, France and Brussels. It does not have a prime minister. The person who holds the title of “president” in the European Parliament is not a head of government in any sense. The president acts more like a Speaker in the Westminster system, presiding over sittings and chairing debates.
The European Parliament also does not have government and opposition sides, so there are no equivalents to cabinet ministers sitting in the assembly.
Unlike national parliaments, the European Parliament cannot propose legislation. That task is reserved for the European Commission, the appointed executive branch of the EU that functions as a cabinet and acts on behalf of elected member governments.
The European Parliament can amend or reject legislation, has some budgetary approval powers and is required to approve some acts of international co-operation, such as data-sharing initiatives and funding for international development initiatives.
The institution rarely makes the news unless it takes some 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 are vehemently opposed to the European Union’s existence. Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party and the Brexit Party — political entities assembled to pull the United Kingdom out of the EU — led his party to 29 seats in the European Parliament in 2019.
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