But the way witnesses are questioned in the EMIS inquiry committee (Emissions Measurements in the Automotive Sector) was apparently so novel that it deserved its own name.
“As a general rule, upon introduction by the Chair, the witnesses or experts open their hearing with a brief oral statement, which is followed by questions from EMIS Members in accordance with the ‘ping-pong’ principle (answer immediately following each question),” MEPs Pablo Zalba Bidegain and Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy wrote last week in the draft interim report.
In many parliaments, the ping-pong principle is nothing new. But in the EP, it is a refreshing change of procedure.
Questioning in the EP is known informally as an exchange of views, and usually takes the following format: one member of each of the eight political groups takes the floor and crams as many questions and comments into a strictly allotted time slot. Sometimes one of the non-affiliated members also gets a turn.
After so many interventions, as spoken contributions are often called, the questioned guest usually has only three minutes or so to try and answer them. Alternatively, if the guest is politically savvy, they will pick the answers that are easiest to address.
Not so in the EMIS committee, where the ping-pong principle has actually resulted in the hearings being interesting to watch, at least to those who have taken some time to catch up on technical terms like “exhaust gas recirculation of nitrogen oxide”.
The hearings have so far involved mostly technical witnesses. But when former commissioners and national authorities in charge of checking if car companies are cheating take the stand later this year, a well-executed ping-pong principle works much better than the marathon of questions.
It is to be hoped that the new inquiry committee into the Panama Papers, which the plenary of the parliament formally requested on Wednesday (8 June), will take a similar work method.
The Panama Papers were a trove of documents, leaked last April, that showed how the rich and powerful use offshore firms to avoid paying taxes.
MEPs voted to set up a committee to “investigate alleged contraventions and maladministration in the application of Union law in relation to money laundering, tax avoidance and tax evasion, its powers, numerical strength and term of office”.
The outcome of the vote in Strasbourg was no surprise. At last Friday's pre-plenary press conference this website asked all political groups if any of them would vote against.
None spoke up, although it should be noted there was no representative present of the seventh-largest group, the eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD).
The constitutive vote for the Panama Papers inquiry was therefore somewhat less exciting than the one for the Dieselgate inquiry, which was supported by 354 MEPs and opposed by 229.
Centre-right are game, this time
The big difference this time around is that centre-right MEPs back the plan this time.
“Our preference usually is to deal with these issues in the committees that exist in the parliament, within their mandate,” said Antti Timonen, spokesman for the largest group, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP). Most of the EPP members voted against setting up the Dieselgate committee.
“We felt it would be better to see [diesel-related] proposals for the future, to see what can be done. For us it was very important not to harm the European car industry, which is a big employer,” said Timonen.
“However, for the Panama Papers, we have seen that they have created a lot of interest but also exposed many problems, so perhaps this inquiry committee gives a better opportunities for us to see what we could have done differently.”
His colleague from the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), also centre-right but much less federalist group, had similar reasoning.
The Panama Papers constitute a “slightly more cross-cutting issue”, said ECR spokesman James Holtum, noting that the group felt the normal environment committee could have dealt with Dieselgate.
Closing the trilogy
The inquiry committee on the Panama Papers will be an informal successor to two so-called special committees, which were set up after the 2014 Luxleaks scandal that revealed how companies were getting sweetheart tax deals in Luxembourg.
After the mandate of the first Tax Rulings and Other Measures Similar in Nature or Effect committee ended on 30 November 2015, the parliament decided to install a sequel, known by its acronym TAXE 2, which will run until 2 August 2016.
Although they were called special committees, the Luxleaks committees were much less powerful than an inquiry committee and they had trouble getting access to documents and persuading witnesses to appear.
The Panama Papers will therefore be a platform to take care of “some of the unfinished business” of TAXE 2, said Richard More O'Ferrall of the Greens, the sixth-largest group, traditionally a pro-inquiry group.
“We are certainly happy that there was a lot less resistance this time,” he said about setting up the Panama Papers inquiry.
After Wednesday's vote, there will be two active inquiry committees (Dieselgate and Panama Papers) and one special committee (LuxLeaks II). The Panama Papers committee will have 65 members, the other two committees have 45 members each.
MEPs as investigators
There are only two MEPs serving on both the Dieselgate and Luxleaks committees, so for a number of months this year 153 MEPs could be taking part in investigative committees. That's not counting the substitute members. If those are counted, and the Panama Papers committee acquires only members not currently in the two other committees, 40 percent of MEPs would be a (substitute) member of an investigative group.