Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Dear Fred,

“If you took a selfie of the EU it would like Jean-Claude Juncker, tired and resigned”. Well those weren’t the exact words of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and he didn’t mention the Commission President designate by name, but the comparison was there for all to see.

While Juncker was holed up in Strasbourg doing what he does best, negotiating a programme with the EPP, Socialists and Liberals, Renzi was giving the sort of speech the plenary has long forgotten. Hot on the heels of electoral success in Italy, he displayed all his youthful vigour and enthusiasm to urge Europe to find its soul again. The Socialists cheered to the rafters as he reminded us that there was also a growth element in the Stability and Growth Pact. There was even a comforting word for David Cameron, that Europe would be less itself without the UK. It is not only Juncker who suffers in comparison with the young pretender and his refreshing openness suddenly made the other presidents – Barroso, Van Rompuy and Schulz – all look rather, well “tired and resigned”. The last time a selfie made the headlines was Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s impromptu photo with Barak Obama. If the Danish Prime Minister does go onto be President of the European Council, the group photo at the end of summits will take on a whole new meaning.

The week gave us a first taste of the battles to come and some of the new players on the plenary stage. Reform seems to be the new buzz word – everyone wants it without being too precise about what it means. The new ECR Chairman Syed Kamall claimed his group were the “exciting hub of new ideas for reform” and offered the hand of friendship to any group willing to journey with them. His hand was swiftly bitten off by Guy Verhofstadt who claimed that what Kamall called change was in fact blocking progress – on the euro, Schengen, immigration. The Liberal leader seems to have assumed the mantle of heckler-in-chief from the retired Danny Cohn-Bendit and his goading of the new UKIP contingent risks turning the plenary into an ongoing Punch & Judy show. 

Nigel Farage was challenged by the new co-president of the Greens, Philippe Lamberts, as to what precisely he was doing here representing a European group when all he talked about was the UK – he would be better off in the House of Commons. Farage assured him that within the next five years that’s exactly where he would be. UKIP’s new Italian colleagues from the Five Star Movement must be wondering what they have got themselves into as they feel the effects of their alliance. They were due a Vice Presidency of the parliament and the chair of the Petitions Committee and look set to lose both in a deal between the big groups. There could also be some interesting repercussions in another broken deal which was due to see the order of Vice Presidents shared between the three big groups, only for the EPP to grab all six top places.

The week also gave us a first look at the firebrands from the left. Pablo Iglesias, the star of the Spanish Podemos movement, is probably more used to hour long speeches to a packed rally than the three minute deadline imposed by the plenary services. He apologised politely for over-stepping his time while making the point that the same restrictions did not seem to apply to Schulz or Barroso. The oldest member, 91 year old Manolis Glezos from Syriza, famous for having removed the swastika from the Parthenon at the end of the war, looked like he could talk on for hours. His campaign to move one of the EU institutions to Greece is probably a lost cause but it could prove a novel way to end the Brussels vs Strasbourg saga.

The fun and games will all start again in ten days-time when the 49.4% of new MEPs trudge back to Strasbourg and hope this time that the Belgian trains are running (if only to stop all the gags about the gravy train being de-railed). The vote on Jean-Claude Juncker has been moved forward to Tuesday 15 July to allow more time for the EU leaders’ meeting the next day to decide on the remaining top jobs, no doubt providing plenty of selfie opportunities. 

Amitiés,

Richard

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