Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Dear Fred,

The European Union has become old and haggard, fearful and self-absorbed “like a grandmother, no longer agile and lively”. It sounds remarkably like Matteo Renzi back in July, who told MEPs that if you took a selfie of Europe it would look tired and resigned.

This time it was an Argentinian who delivered some home truths to Europe’s representatives in the first papal address to the House since Pope John Paul II’s visit 26 years ago, when he called the EU a “beacon of civilisation”. Pope Francis’ message was altogether more sombre as he lamented the fact the great ideas which had once inspired Europe had been replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions. It was a thoughtful speech and it had something for everyone. The right cheered when he emphasised the pivotal role of the family, the left applauded his call for restoring dignity in work, the Greens were delighted he spoken up for the environment. But all will have been chastised by his warning on immigration “that we cannot let the Mediterranean become a vast graveyard”. Safeguarding human dignity was the theme throughout his address to a packed assembly, who for once behaved themselves impeccably. The theatrics were left to the radical feminist campaigners Femen who staged a topless protest in Strasbourg Cathedral.

There was drama aplenty on Monday evening as the censure motion on Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission was debated in the light of the Lux leaks scandal. The President ensured all 28 Commissioners were present, with the one notable exception of Gunther Oettinger, who is probably persona non grata in France at the moment after his explosive comments on their reform commitment. The debate was supposed to be about what Juncker knew and when but turned into a slanging match between the Eurosceptic MEPs who tabled the motion and the pro-European groups who saw it for the cynical ploy it was. The unholy alliance between the co-authors, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen, was exposed and Guy Verhofstadt drew howls of protests when he quoted the UKIP founder Alan Sked saying that his party had “grown into this hideous, racist, populist, xenophobic, Islamophobic thing”. He also managed a well-timed dig at Le Pen, pointing to the funding her party had received from a bank closely linked to Putin. The far-left GUE aimed their recriminations at the Socialists and Greens, who had refused to sign their own censure motion. The resolution was roundly defeated but the roll call reveals that sixteen members of the ECR group, including its German AfD MEPs, voted in favour, while the rest of the group (bar the Belgians) abstained.

The week ended with the winner of the Sakharov prize, Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege, warning that “women’s bodies have become a true battlefield”. He gave a harrowing account of how rape has become a weapon of war and he warned that the prize would be meaningless to the victims “if you don’t join us in our quest for peace, justice and democracy”. I think Pope Francis would have said amen to that. As he accepted the prize, a group of Congolese women in the official gallery burst into spontaneous dance, their ululations reverberating around the vast hemicycle.

Richard

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Author

Richard Steel

Senior Associate

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