By Gilbert Reilhac
STRASBOURG (Reuters) - EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker called European lawmakers "ridiculous" on Tuesday for failing to turn up to an address by Malta's prime minister, saying they should show more respect for smaller members of the bloc.
Juncker, himself from the small Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, was visibly annoyed as he watched the proceedings in the near empty parliamentary chamber in Strasbourg.
"You are ridiculous," the European Commission president told the gathering called to listen to a speech by Malta's Joseph Muscat, in a blunt public rebuke of another EU institution.
"The fact that there's about 30 members of parliament present in this debate only really illustrates the fact that parliament is not serious," he said. "The European Parliament is ridiculous, very ridiculous."
Juncker said Malta, the EU's smallest country, which has just completed a stint running the bloc's presidency, deserved better. "If Mr. Muscat was Mrs Merkel, difficult as that is to imagine, or Mr Macron ... we would have a full house," Juncker said, referring to the leaders of Germany and France.
Parliament president Antonio Tajani did not address the low attendance, but told Juncker himself to take a more respectful tone. "You may criticize the parliament, yes, but the Commission does not control the parliament, it's the parliament that should be controlling the Commission," he said, to scattered applause.
Juncker later apologized to Tajani, a parliamentary spokesman said. Juncker's Dutch deputy defended the outburst as the mark of a "passionate" politician: "Jean-Claude has a habit of letting his heart speak," Frans Timmermans told reporters.
Institutional rivalries are a staple of EU political life. Juncker's Commission is a frequent target of national leaders and EU lawmakers for trying to impose the views of the Brussels-based administration on elected bodies. Juncker often accuses member states of reneging on commitments or undermining the EU and has used the parliament as an ally against national demands.
But the Commission shares with the Council of member states a mistrust of Parliament's ambitions. Lawmakers' powers over EU legislation were enhanced by the 2009 Lisbon Treaty but national governments scoff at its claims to be the most democratically legitimate EU body because fewer than half the bloc's voters bother to take part in European elections.
Its treaty obligation to divide its sittings between Brussels and Strasbourg is also a source of embarrassment -- and costs -- for the legislature, though there was little sign that traveling had kept the chamber empty for Muscat on Tuesday. Later on, it was packed for other parliamentary business.
Slightly more than 400,000 people live on Malta, putting it just behind Luxembourg in the EU population league table.
Muscat, who smiled during Juncker's remarks, gave parliament a briefing on his country's presidency, focused on the migration crisis and called Brexit a "disastrous creature which all of us should have seen coming but none of us acted to stop".
(Writing by Elizabeth Miles in Brussels; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Catherine Evans)