Both had brought shame and embarrassment on their countries, he concluded. Well Viktor Orban looked anything but ashamed as he invited himself to the debate (t/b (take a bow) Ryan Heath for spilling the beans on the correspondence between Orban and Schulz). Orban argued that “not everything is inscribed in stone” (surely a lesson there for Ed Milliband’s doomed election gimmick) and that debating such things was the very essence of freedom and democracy. You get the sneaky suspicion that Orban quite likes these annual jousts with the European Parliament and enjoys nothing more than goading the left into a righteous sweat. Nor could EPP group leader Manfred Weber resist the opportunity to point out that Hungary’s high growth rate was the envy of many a left-governed country. Reintroduction of the death penalty however was a non-starter.
You don’t need to go as far as Budapest to find provocative statements and Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt made a gratuitous dig at the whole Brexit debate by asking how many opt outs were possible before a country decided to leave the EU? Frans Timmermans is also proving quite apt at the sound bite and in introducing his Better Regulation package he said, “ Eurosceptics are not wrong by definition. Eurosceptics annoy me because they are sometimes right. And when they are right we have to answer them”. Nigel Farage would have raised a pint to that one. We had of course wondered if we had seen the last of the UKIP leader in Strasbourg but despite failing in his quest to win a Westminster seat , he was back energised and with that customary grin. In what the British tabloids are dubbing “the night of the long Niges”, he has managed to re-assert his leadership and get rid of some of his doubters. Patrick O’Flynn, former political editor of the Daily Express and new MEP, was forced into one of those abject apologies reminiscent of Pol Pot, “I would like to express to colleagues my sincere regret at going public with my frustrations about the turn of events following polling day. And more than that, I would like to apologise directly to Nigel for the phrase “snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive”. I wouldn’t worry too much Patrick, it sounds like the sort of description Nigel regularly used to belittle Herman van Rompuy.
Another leader watching her back was Marine Le Pen. There was no risk of inadvertently bumping into her disgruntled father as he was constantly surrounded by a media scrum anxious to know the latest in family relations. Le Pen père is at risk of losing his position as Honorary President, a title we may have to bestow on Martin Schulz if rumours of an unprecedented third term as president bear truth. The argument goes that if the EPP take over the presidency of the parliament in January 2017 as expected, this would give them the leadership of the three key EU institutions. When asked if he could support another Schulz bid “given the grand coalition deal”, Gianni Pittella replied that there was no grand coalition, only cooperation on certain issues, and that Schulz was still the best man for the job
Much has been written about bored MEPs roaming the corridors of Strasbourg in search of something –anything –to do. In the clearest sign yet that things aren’t going to get any better, the EPP have proposed that the 2016 calendar should include a whopping nine weeks (as opposed to four this year) where MEPs spend quality time with their constituents.
And smiles all round in Strasbourg following the vote to cut by half the number of plenary sessions in Brussels next year. The asparagus lobby have won the day!