February 24, 2010 / 5:55 PM / 10 years ago

British eurosceptic calls EU president "damp rag"

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A British eurosceptic MP branded the new president of the European Council a “damp rag” from a non-country on Wednesday in a personal attack that shocked the normally consensual European Parliament.

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy addresses the European Parliament during a plenary session in Brussels February 24, 2010. REUTERS/Thierry Roge

To gasps from other members of the EU legislature, Nigel Farage, the enfant terrible of the United Kingdom Independence Party, launched a tirade against Herman Van Rompuy, the Belgian chosen by the 27 EU leaders to chair their regular summits.

Farage said that when the EU appointed its first president last November, it was hoped he would be “a giant global figure” and a “political leader for 500 million people” who deserved a higher salary than U.S. President Barack Obama.

“But I’m afraid all we got was you,” said Farage, looking directly at Van Rompuy, a 62-year-old former Belgian prime minister with thinning grey hair and spectacles.

“I don’t want to be rude but you know, really, you have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance ... of a bank clerk,” shouted Farage, to heckles from other parliamentarians.

Such verbal abuse is a feature of Britain’s adversarial politics but very rare in the EU chamber, where debate is muted partly due to a pro-European consensus but also because it is conducted in 23 languages through interpreters and headphones.

“Is this European democracy?” Farage asked. “You appear to have a loathing of the very concept of the existence of nation states. Perhaps that’s because you come from Belgium, which of course is pretty much a non-country.”

Van Rompuy, who was little known in Europe before he emerged as a compromise candidate, has faced media criticism for his lack of charisma but won some praise as a consensus builder.

Some MPs urged parliament president Jerzy Buzek to cut Farage off, but the speaker waited until he had finished before saying: “You said at the outset you did not want to be rude. I would ask you to stick to that.”

Van Rompuy sat listening via a translation headset, his face calm but his brow furrowed.

UKIP won the second-largest share of the vote on a low turnout in European Parliament elections in Britain last June, ahead of the Labour Party but behind the Conservatives, who are also sceptical towards the EU.

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