Parliaments

European Parliament: calm before the Brexit storm?

Will the historians put down 2017 as an annus horribilis or mirabilis for the European Union?

Although the bloc did not have to contend with a shock as big as last year's Brexit vote, the year was certainly not marked by stability and serenity.

Eurozone recovery and Emmanuel Macron's arrival in the Elysee Palace certainly gave pro-EU figures cheer.

But migration, eurozone reform and counter-terrorism remain thorny issues - whilst relations between Brussels and central and eastern Europe turned frosty.

In a year of fascinating elections and dramatic summits, the European Parliament was in and out of the spotlight.

In EU terms, it was another relatively light year on the legislative front as the Juncker Commission entered its fourth year in office.

But there were plenty of changes and a number of high-profile visits.

Here are the highs, lows and quirky moments from the year in Brussels and Strasbourg...

January: Antonio Tajani elected new president

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The year began with the assembly picking Italian conservative Antonio Tajani to replace outgoing German MEP Martin Schulz as the Parliament's new president.

The election of the ex-European commissioner gave his European People's Party (EPP) group control over the EU's top three institutions.

Unusually, the EPP and social democrat (S&D) groups stood candidates against each other after a row about the succession.

Mr Tajani eventually emerged victorious in a run-off against his compatriot Gianni Pittella after brokering an informal deal with the liberal bloc of MEPs.

Don't look back in anger…

The election marked the end of the so-called "grand coalition" between the EPP and S&D groups that had divided top EU jobs since 2014.

Some worried that a breakdown in relations would lead to legislative gridlock.

However, a Swedish MEP from the EPP expressed his delight at the end of the arrangement:

February: 'He's lying to you'

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Media captionThe prank was a hit on social media

Nigel Farage was the target of a prank from Labour's Seb Dance during a debate on immigration restrictions that had just been enacted by Donald Trump.

The former UKIP leader, who had supported Mr Trump's bid for the presidency, was heckled as he accused MEPs of "faux outrage" and anti-Americanism.

However speech hit the headlines for a different reason after the Labour man held up a sign behind him reading: "He's lying to you."

Mr Dance later said the stunt was an attempt to challenge Trump's ban during a debate when he had not been allocated speaking time.

One of Mr Farage's fellow UKIP MEPs, however, filed a complaint about the incident with the authorities.

February: MEPs ratify EU-Canada trade deal

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After seven years of negotiations, the European Parliament ratified CETA, a wide-ranging free trade agreement between the EU and Canada.

The deal entered into force provisionally later in the year, although it will need to be ratified in all EU member states before it fully comes into effect.

MEPs had to contend with protesters outside the parliament buildings in Strasbourg, who tried to block access but were eventually dragged off by police.

With Donald Trump having taken office only the month before, the vote was hailed by some as a victory for free trading.

Addressing MEPs after the vote, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau said if both sides are successful in implementing it, it could provide a "blueprint" for future deals.

But he warned: "If we are not, this could well be one of the last."

Time for a toast?

Ahead of the vote, one Conservative MEP tweeted:

March: MEPs strip prosecution immunity from Marine Le Pen

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As her presidential rival Emmanuel Macron unveiled his manifesto, Front National leader Marine Le Pen had some bad news in Brussels.

Her fellow MEPs voted to strip her of her immunity from prosecution over graphic images of killings by so-called Islamic State she tweeted in 2015.

She had been under investigation over whether the tweets broke French laws against disseminating violent images.

The assembly can waive an MEP's usual immunity from prosecution if it decides an activity was not part of their parliamentary duties.

Ms Le Pen had dismissed efforts to lift her immunity as part of a "system" to "stop the French people's candidate that I am".

Although she failed in her bid for the presidency, she regained immunity later in the year when she was elected a French MP - although this too was also withdrawn.

April: MEPs draw Brexit 'red lines'

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Although it is not a direct participant in the Brexit talks, the European Parliament has to approve the final deal before it can come into effect.

In the spring, MEPs laid out their initial demands for supporting a Brexit agreement in a 3,000 word motion.

They backed a "phased" approach to the talks, early settlement of citizens' rights issues and for the UK to be liable for post-Brexit financial commitments to the EU.

And they called for a specific time limit on any transitional arrangements, insisting that transition should be limited to three years maximum.

They also formally called for two London-based EU agencies to be moved out of the UK - it was later decided that Amsterdam will get the medicines agency, and Paris the banking agency.

April: Viktor Orban v MEPs

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Never one to shirk a fight, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was vehement in his defence of a controversial university law during a debate with MEPs.

Hungary had found itself on the EU's naughty step over legislation which critics said threatened the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest.

The legislation meant the CEU, founded by billionaire George Soros, would be unable to award diplomas because it is registered in the US.

The European Commission ruled that the law was not compatible with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt was among those to chide the Hungarian leader, accusing him of "dumping" his previous democratic values.

But Mr Orban shot back, accusing MEPs of harbouring "prejudices" against his country, which he said had respected "the rules of the club".

May: Netflix on the beach?

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By a thumping majority, MEPs gave their backing to legislation to allow people who have paid for online TV content to access it all over the EU.

The new rules - which will apply from April 2018 - are part of an EU plan to make it easier to sell digital products throughout Europe.

The new law requires TV companies to offer access to paid-for online services to customers for "a limited period of time" if they are elsewhere in the EU.

Under the rules, broadcasters will have to conduct checks to verify a user's normal country of residence before allowing access.

BBC-style broadcasters who charge a licence fee can offer subscribers overseas access but will not be required to do so.

June: Back to the future for energy labels

Seven years ago, the EU introduced a new scale for labelling the energy efficiency of electrical appliances, including special A+, A++ and A+++ ratings.

The new designations were supposed to make the original A-G system, created in the 1990s, more reflective of new highly efficient products.

But two years ago, the EU Commission proposed to go back to the old scheme, admitting consumers found the plus-labels confusing.

In June, MEPs gave final backing to the legislation bringing back the previous system, which will also create a new public database of registered products.

But some still had reservations about the long phase-in period to bring in (back?) the old scheme.

With boilers not re-designated until 2030, they worried that having two scales co-existing for so long would simply confuse people more…

July: Juncker brands MEPs 'ridiculous' over poor turnout

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Media captionJuncker: I will never again attend a meeting of this kind

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker committed news somewhat surprisingly in the final session before the summer break.

Outraged at the poor attendance at a morning debate with Maltese PM Joseph Muscat, he called the European Parliament "ridiculous" and "not serious".

MEPs had scheduled a debate reviewing the six-month EU presidency of Malta, the bloc's smallest member state.

His outburst prompted a bizarre stand-up row with European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, who pointed it was not for EU commissioners to "control" MEPs.

In reply, Mr Juncker accused them of not respecting smaller EU states, adding that the chamber would have been full for the French or German leaders.

September: Policy blitz in 'state of union' speech

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Media captionBrexit is "a very sad and tragic moment in our history"

Mr Juncker was soon back after the summer recess however, delivering his third 'state of the union' speech as head of the EU's executive.

The tone was markedly more upbeat than in previous years, as he told MEPs that that Europe's economy was "bouncing back" - and the wind was "in Europe's sails".

As well as the usual rhetoric, there were plenty of policy announcements, including for a "finance and economy" minister for the eurozone.

He also proposed new EU agencies to boost cyber security and monitor the labour market, and a mechanism to screen foreign investments in "strategic" areas.

But he grabbed headlines over the Channel for his comments that the UK will come to "regret" its decision to leave the EU.

October: EU backs Madrid in Catalonia row

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However it was the threat of another separation that worried EU figures in October, as Catalans voted for independence in a disputed referendum.

According to the organisers, 90% of voters backed independence, but less than half of Catalonia's electorate took part.

Spain's constitutional court declared the vote illegal and almost 900 people were hurt as police tried to stop it going ahead.

At a debate in Strasbourg, a number of MEPs made impassioned speeches in favour of the pro-independence cause.

But Commissioner Frans Timmermans said democracy could not be "used against" the rule of law and there was "general consensus" the vote was illegal.

Enforcing the rule of law "sometimes does require" the "proportionate" use of force, he added.

October: #MeToo movement hits Strasbourg

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A range of allegations made against the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein prompted soul-searching in a number of institutions about the issue of sexual harassment.

The European Parliament was soon caught up in the story, after media reports detailed allegations against MEPs.

At an emergency debate on the issue, a number of MEPs said that they too had been the victims of harassment in the past.

They later passed a motion calling for the situation in the assembly to be reviewed by a "task force of independent experts".

It said the group should examine the effectiveness of the advisory committee that deals with complaints between parliamentary assistants and MEPs.

'Structures need to change'

One MEP who spoke out during that debate, the German Green Terry Reintke, later tweeted:

November: 'Paradise Papers' bring tax back into the spotlight

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The issue of tax avoidance was never far away as an inquiry committee into last year's Panama Papers leak conducted hearings throughout the year.

Less than a month after the committee finalised its draft report, another set of revelations hit the newsstands in the form of the Paradise Papers.

The huge leak of financial documents threw more light on the top end of the world of offshore finance.

EU taxation commissioner Pierre Moscovici condemned banks for working "hand in glove" with multinationals to lower their effective tax bills.

He called for backing in the Commission's attempts to inject more transparency in the reporting of companies' profits.

The EU later unveiled its first-ever blacklist of tax havens - which was subsequently criticised for not including any EU countries.

December: Venezuelan opposition gets human rights award

As the year drew to a close, the European Parliament awarded its Sakharov human rights prize to political prisoners and the democratic opposition in Venezuela.

MEPs had previously accused the Venezuelan government of using "brutal repression" against those protesting against the creation of a new constituent assembly in the country.

Opposition activists say that President Nicolás Maduro has created the new body simply as a means to bypass the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

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