Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Postcard from Strasbourg

Dear Fred,
There was a whiff of scandal in the air this week to offset the festive cheer. First up was the conclusion to the Le Pen voting affair where Dutch far-right member Marcel de Graaff was caught red-handed voting on behalf of Marine while she allegedly snuck out for a quick cigarette....

He was fined five days-worth of  allowances for what the Front National leader called an act of “gallantry”.

Proof, if any was needed, that smoking is an expensive and dangerous habit. Next up was eccentric Czech MEP Miloslav Ransdorf who needed all 10 of the languages he claims to speak to explain to the Swiss authorities why he and three Slovaks were trying to withdraw €300 million from a Swiss bank with fake IDs. The Industry Committee will be the poorer without his rambling interventions. And then there was the scandal that keeps on giving. Diselgate has been a godsend to those MEPs who have argued for years that the Commission favours the car industry over consumers and public health. Previous attempts to set up an inquiry committee had failed but the left managed to force it onto the Group leaders’ agenda and so we will now have a year-long investigation into what the Commission and member states did or did not know about defeat devices. Julie Girling for the Tories argued that this “political posturing” would achieve nothing and that important legislative changes were already in the pipeline. But this will not stop the investigative zeal of MEPs like Dutch Green Bas Eickhout who already wants to extend the scope of the inquiry beyond the Commission and national authorities to the car companies themselves. The Liberals have been quick to defend the actions of their former Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik and the sights seem to be set squarely on the role of former Industry Commissioner Antonio Tajani. The EPP will try and protect their own but whatever revelations emerge could irreparably damage his hopes of unseating Martin Schulz in 12 months’ time.

“Censored, jailed, flogged. But not silenced”. These were the words used to introduce the symbolic empty chair that represented this year’s winner of the Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought. Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger, came to international attention when sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for allegedly insulting Islam on his website. His wife, Ensaf Haidar, was on hand to accept the prize – the 15th she said she had collected this year – and to stress that he was not a criminal but a writer and free thinker. One can only hope that he doesn’t have to wait the 23 years it took before Aung San Suu Kyi was able to receive her prize in person.

The long-simmering dispute between the Parliament, and especially its President, with Hungary looks like it could spread to the new Polish government. This week saw yet another resolution accusing the Orban regime of a “systematic deterioration” of the rule of law, “which, if the Commission fails to address it, could trigger similar developments in other member states”. No prizes for guessing which country they had in mind and the week had already started with the new Polish Prime Minister, Beata Szydlo, demanding an apology from Martin Schulz for saying in a German radio interview that what is happening in Poland has the characteristics of a “coup”. Strong words given the history between the two countries and plans for a future plenary debate on the situation in Poland could be incendiary. Both sides should maybe heed the concluding words of Ensaf Haidar who quoted her imprisoned husband as saying “we wish life on those who wish us death”. A fitting quote for this Christmas time.

Joyeux Noël,

Richard

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