STRASBOURG (Reuters) - The European Parliament opened for a new term on Tuesday with the highest number of women ever but short of three pro-independence Catalan members who were barred from joining as hundreds protested over their exclusion outside the building.
Further controversy arose when 29 members of Britain’s anti-EU Brexit Party turned their backs as the European Union anthem - Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” - was played live at the opening ceremony - a gesture that other lawmakers denounced as disgraceful and pathetic.
The parliament convened for the first time as national EU leaders gathered in Brussels for a third consecutive day to hash out who will get the bloc’s top jobs under the new mandate. EU-wide elections in May returned a fragmented 751-member parliament, which was set to elect its president on Wednesday.
Catalan separatist leaders Carles Puigdemont, Toni Comin and Oriol Junqueras have not been able to take their seats in Strasbourg as the Spanish electoral authority has not recognized them as members.
Puigdemont and Comin have lived in self-imposed exile since warrants were issued for their arrest in Spain after a failed bid for secession for Catalonia in 2017.
Instead of traveling to Spain to pledge allegiance to the Spanish constitution in person, as is required to take seats in the Strasbourg assembly, both sent in written statements of allegiance, which were not accepted.
Junqueras, imprisoned in Spain, was not allowed to leave jail to take the pledge and, along with Puigdemont and Comin, was left off Spain’s list of members, which numbered 51 rather than 54.
Hundreds gathered outside the parliament in Strasbourg, many waving pro-independence Catalan flags, to protest against the exclusion of the three Catalan separatist leaders.
The EU General Court on Monday dismissed an application by Puigdemont and Comin to take their seats at the start of the session while challenges to decisions by the Spanish authorities and the parliament to bar them are considered.
“Any future parliament president would certainly have to also look into this, because it’s also a matter of how do you defend the rights of those who have been elected into the European Parliament,” Ska Keller, co-leader of the Greens/European Free Alliance party, of which Junqueras is a member, told reporters.
The seats of the Catalan separatist leaders will remain empty until they either take their oaths or leave their places to other members of their list. Should they become members of the European Parliament, they would receive immunity.
The Brexit Party kicked off the term by gathering outside the parliament holding “BeLeave in Britain” signs and marching into the chamber en masse. They turned their backs when the EU anthem was played.
From the other end of Britain’s political spectrum, several lawmakers from the strongly pro-EU Liberal Democrats wore yellow T-shirts marked “Stop Brexit” and “Bollocks to Brexit”.
Britons voted narrowly in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU but the departure has been delayed by deadlock in the London parliament over the terms of Brexit.
There is one less political party represented in the new EU parliament as the European Freedom and Direct Democracy - largely made up of Italy’s 5-Star Movement and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose leader, Nigel Farage, now heads the Brexit Party - has disbanded.
Instead, the Brexit Party’s 29 members and the 5-Star’s 14 are among the 55 considered unaffiliated in the parliament.
To form a political group in the chamber, 25 members from at least a quarter of the EU’s nations have to sign on.
The new parliament also registered its highest number of women yet with 40% of the members, as the bloc faces pressure to improve the gender balance in its top jobs.
Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Mark Heinrich