Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Dear Fred,

Did you stay up for Clackmannanshire? The “wee county”, the smallest in what is still Great Britain, was the first to declare its result in the Scottish referendum and its majority for the No campaign set the tone for the night. While exhausted campaigners from both sides will take a rest, commentators are already busily analysing the implications for David Cameron’s proposed referendum in 2017 on UK membership of the EU.

If it was difficult to muster much love for a 300 year old union, how will the pro-European campaign stand any chance of generating any affection for a 40 year old dalliance with Brussels? And if Scottish nationalist leader Alec Salmond was so effective in portraying himself as the plucky underdog pitted against the Westminster establishment, how much more will Nigel Farage benefit from lambasting the Brussels elite? The key lesson learnt seems to be start early and articulate a positive case for staying in Europe – but will David Cameron, bruised and bloodied from this campaign,  plead as he did in Scotland not to break up the family? It may well end up that it is business rather than politicians who will need to convince a sceptical public.

While Scotland was not on the plenary agenda, it was most certainly on MEPs’ minds and the main political groups have responded to the news with relief. Their attention, however, was drawn to more immediate concerns in the Ukraine and there was a moment of theatre when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was shown live in Kiev on the TV screen signing the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement at the same time as the parliament’s vote.

Given the paucity of legislative dossiers to deal with, the main occupation of the week was to spot the new commissioners, who were busily working the corridors to try and establish some sort of rapport with their inquisitors before the hearings. A handful of candidates know they are in the firing line, with the names of Lord Hill, Miguel Arias Canete, Alenka Bratusek, Pierre Moscovici and Tibor Navracsics doing the rounds. The Greens and far left GUE seem the most enthusiastic to point the finger of suspicion, while the three groups making up the grand coalition, EPP, S&D and ALDE, know they have the most to lose if one of their own is singled out. The restructuring of certain DGs in the Commission, particularly in the health and environment field, has also led to a lot of muttering and Rebecca Harms for the Greens claimed the changes had the fingerprints of an “Commission insider” all over them. She couldn’t possibly mean Catherine Day or Martin Selmayr could she? It will be left to First Vice-President Frans Timmermans to defend the structural changes in his hearing, which will be an hour longer than that of his colleagues and chaired by the political group leaders. He’ll need all his diplomatic skills to woo that audience.

Having started with the vote to save the United Kingdom it’s maybe fitting to end with that most staunch defender of the Union, the Reverend Ian Paisley, who died last week. President Schulz paid tribute to his 25 years’ service as an MEP recalling that Strasbourg had offered him the space outside the glare of northern Irish politics to initiate discussions with his Republican counterpart John Hume, and start the peace process. But Paisley will be best remembered for being manhandled out of the hemicycle by incensed German Christian Democrats after calling Pope John Paul “the antichrist” during his visit in 1988. Schulz will certainly be hoping for an easier ride when Pope Francis 1 addresses the plenary on 25 November.

Amitiés,

Richard

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Author

Richard Steel

Senior Associate

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