Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Dear Fred,

It was like the annual reunion of the Spitzenkandidat club – there was Jean-Claude, Martin, Guy and Ska all waiting to welcome back the prodigal, Alexis. The Famous Five hadn’t been together since their last adventure, the televised presidential candidates’ debate, but here they all were again to deal with their biggest challenge yet – what to do about Greece?

Tsipras’ entrance was beautifully choreographed, all kisses and high-fives with his supporters and you half expected some Euro-pop to come blaring out of the sound system or MEPs with selfie-sticks trying to get in on the act. The first question was where would he sit. Donald Tusk and Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel had already bagged the front two seats, meaning that he was relegated to the second row. These things matter in a status conscious parliament, as Marine Le Pen can testify. Despite being a group leader now, she’s still stuck in the cheap seats at the back of the stalls near the exit.

At first Tsipras looked to be very much enjoying his surroundings, no doubt a welcome break from all those interminable meetings with bankers and moaning ministers. However, the trademark smile – or is it more of a smirk – had long disappeared by the time the three-hour grilling had finished. Advice had come in bucket loads from all sides. Confucius himself would have been proud of Donald Tusk’s counsel: “Seek help among your friends and not your enemies. And if you want to help your friend in need, do not humiliate him”. The awkward squad on the right were pretending to be his friends, egging him on to set Greece free and leave the euro. Marine Le Pen proclaimed that the euro and austerity were Siamese twins, while Nigel Farage claimed the north-south split in the Eurozone meant we had a “new Berlin wall called the euro”. Manfred Weber for the EPP could not disguise his contempt for the Greek Prime Minister. Why hadn’t he apologised for calling his creditors “terrorists”? How dare he lecture European leaders about fundamental values when he trampled over truth, mutual respect and democracy. He was only outdone in terms of theatrics by Guy Verhofstaft, whose seven-minute tirade has gone viral on social media. He accused Tsipras of sleepwalking towards Grexit, with no credible reform package in sight. He was as guilty as all previous governments of cronyism and now was the time to show he could be a real leader and not some sort of false prophet.

Quite what purpose the whole exercise served is debatable. The Parliament is essentially a by-stander in the negotiations. However it provided Tsipras with an audience to plead his case and allowed MEPs to let off steam. No doubt a number of frustrated prime ministers would have loved to have snuck in at the back and let Tsipras know what they really thought of him.

Martin Schulz kept uncharacteristically quiet during the whole affair, maybe mindful of the howls of protest that had greeted his comments in a German newspaper about regime change in case of a Yes in the referendum. The hyper-active president was also attacked by the Greens for twisting the arm of the Socialist group to accept the latest text on investor-state dispute settlement and then manipulating the final vote on TTIP. Both sides quoted arcane rules of procedure at each other but in the end the rule of thumb is the President is always right. Those defiant Socialists who could not bring themselves to vote on ISDS can rest safe in the knowledge that they are always welcome in my home commune of Saint Gilles, whose local council has declared this part of central Brussels a non-TTIP zone.

Με φιλικούς χαιρετισμούς

Richard

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Author

Richard Steel

Senior Associate

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