The head of the EU’s executive body has described the European Parliament as ridiculous after only a few dozen MEPs turned up to a debate.
The outburst from the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, earned him a rebuke from the parliament's president, Antonio Tajani, who said: "We are not ridiculous."
The spat unfolded in Strasbourg, where rows of empty seats in the vast plenary chamber made plain that most of the parliament's 751 members were elsewhere.
The session was dedicated to assessing Malta’s six months in the EU presidency chair, which ended last week.
Juncker accused MEPs of failing to show respect for a small country and said there would have been a full house if Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron were in parliament.
“I would like to welcome those that have actually taken the trouble to turn out this morning, but the fact that there’s about 30 members of parliament present in this debate only really illustrates the fact that parliament is not serious in this,” said a cross-looking Juncker.
He was interrupted by Tajani, who sharply told him to show a more respectful attitude, saying: “You may criticise the parliament, yes, but the commission does not control the parliament, it is parliament who should control the commission.”
Juncker retorted: “There are only a few members in the plenary to control the commission. You are ridiculous.” Overriding Tajani’s interruption, he added: “I will never again attend a meeting of this kind.”
Malta's prime minister, Joseph Muscat, smiled and seemed bemused by the clash. Philippe Lamberts, of the Greens group, was seen applauding Juncker.
The commission cannot compel MEPs to attend parliament but the testy exchange means more people will be counting MEPs in seats when Estonia’s prime minister, Jüri Ratas, is in Strasbourg on Wednesday.
The unusually public row overshadowed a discussion on migration, as the EU struggles to forge a common response to the thousands of people arriving from north Africa.
Countries on Europe’s southern borders blame some central and northern states for not doing enough to share the cost of managing refugees and migrants. “When it boils down to real effective solidarity, we as member states should all be ashamed of our record,” Muscat had said earlier.
"Many people looking at the EU would conclude Europe was a failure on this issue," he added.