If you ever find yourself in the EU Parliament’s gargantuan chamber in Strasbourg, look toward the back. No, further back – in the last few rows on the far right. This is the area reserved for the xenophobic wackos who aren’t in any parliamentary group. But in their midst, on seat 694, between the neoliberal AfD from Germany and the neofascist FPÖ from Austria, sits Martin Sonneborn.
Wearing the grey suit of a bureaucrat and the noncommittal smile of a politician, the 49-year-old Sonneborn doesn’t look out of place. “We’re not the craziest ones in the European Parliament,” he says. Marine Le Pen of the Front National, just one row ahead, won the European elections in France with diatribes against immigrants and globalization. Sonneborn’s Die PARTEI, in contrast, got their seat with a promise to “overcome substance” (Inhalte überwinden).
Die PARTEI was founded 10 years ago by editors of the satirical magazine Titanic. They wanted to re-build the Wall and crossed every ‘t’ for establishing a political party. After years of slow progress, their breakthrough came at the European Elections of 2014 after Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled to abolish the three percent hurdle for EU elections. The reasoning? Since the EU Parliament can’t decide much anyway, it can’t hurt to fill it with small parties.
Now Sonneborn makes EU politics interesting. Daily life in Strasbourg seems to consist of endless horse trading to fill positions, interrupted by speeches in front of a mostly empty chamber. It seems that many parliamentarians don’t find it too thrilling either and thus don’t bother to show up to work. The discussions about byzantine regulations are mostly theatre anyway, since important decisions in the EU are made by the Commission, not the Parliament. And any attempts to make it look interesting just result in face palms.
That’s why Sonneborn, while taking selfies with his right-wing neighbours, is quite open about his goal to get as much money as possible. The original plan, to have each representative resign after one month and then collect six months of transitional pay, has apparently fallen through due to red tape. But Sonneborn isn’t giving up: “We’ll bring them a 60 PARTEI cadre to Brussels – whether as office managers, interns or EU Commission Presidents.” He has given his word that he will get material benefits for his underlings.
The real question is how much satire is possible in the EU parliament. Udo Voigt, the head of the NPD (who has been featured in Exberliner magazine far too often for my liking), has just been elected to the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. What is left for a comedian to say?
The EU parliament used to have a directive about the required length and curvature of cucumbers. After endless ridicule, it was dropped in 2009. Sonneborn wants to re-introduce this directive but apply it to weapons: “Any gun barrel would need a curvature of at least two centimetres per 10 centimetres in length,” he told the newspaper junge Welt. “I believe that would be less suffering in the world if Germany, as the European champion in exporting weapons, moved ahead on this.” When did you last hear such a sensible proposal from the EU?