Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Dear Fred,

There’s a moment in a football match when the Mexican wave starts and you know you’ve lost your audience. That moment arrived for Jean-Claude Juncker about one hour into his inaugural State of the Union address when an Italian MEP decided enough was enough, donned an Angela Merkel mask and strode down the aisle to shake the president’s hand.

It wasn’t the only surreal moment in a long and rambling speech, where he veered away regularly from his written text. Nervous officials must have been squirming in their seats. The message however was clear – “Europe was not in a good place” and in case you hadn’t been listening at the back, that was reinforced with “the bell tolls… and winter is coming”. The answer was also simply if rather clumsily put: “There is not enough Europe in this Union and there is not enough Union in this Union”.

The EU’s State of the Union address always faces unfavourable comparisons with its US namesake. The President of the European Commission (POTEC) can only dream of the prime time audience that POTUS attracts. He was also faced with a contrasting vision of Europe’s future from another POTEC, Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, whose speech to the Bruegel think tank on Monday warned against “the dreams and visions of the ultra-European ideologists” as much as against the Farage brigade. Tusk made a plea for pragmatism and moderation, arguing that “step-by-step action is a fine European tradition”. No wonder that Guy Verhofstadt, self-confessed ultra-European ideologist, was so critical of Tusk’s absence from the plenary debate, accusing him of failing to solve the refugee crisis by knocking national leaders’ heads together.

Back to POTEC who had a lot to say about the refugee crisis and reminded the House that nearly everyone in Europe had been a refugee at one time or another. He reliably informed us that there were more McDonalds in the US than in Scotland – if only they sold the McHaggis that would soon change. His proposal for a compulsory relocation system was backed by all the main political groups and his assertion that “there is no religion, no belief, no philosophy when it comes to refugees” was echoed by EPP leader Manfred Weber who said “we don’t defend Christian rights, we defend human rights”. As clear a rebuke to the Hungarian and Slovak leaders as we were likely to get.

The rest of the week was taken up with an eye-catching proposal that member states should nominate a male and female candidate for the post of Commissioner, leaving it to the President-elect to choose in order to ensure a proper gender balance. It was also a good week for baby seals and the cloned offspring of Dolly the sheep, with new rules to reduce the number of seals hunted and an extended ban on animal cloning.

The future of Strasbourg is a recurring theme in the Postcard and so it would be remiss not to report on the latest bit of blue sky thinking on how best to use a building left empty for 27 days of the month. Step forward Philippe Lamberts, tax campaigner and co-leader of the Greens, who proposed it would be a great place to house refugees – with plenary sessions naturally moved to Brussels. A true solution à la Belge!

The latest crowned-head of Europe to address the plenary will be su majestad el Rey Felipe VI of Spain on October 7. Will he be followed later in the year by the Right Honourable David Cameron, who, rumour has it, has not totally dismissed the invitation to set out his reform plans to the plenary. A word of warning David – beware cheap imitators wearing Cameron masks!

Amitiés,

Richard

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