Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Dear Fred,
“Let the lion roar,” trumpeted Boris Johnson. “It’s time to stop treating the referendum result as though it were a plague of boils or a murrain of cattle … it’s time to be bold”.

It’s a shame the erudite Foreign Secretary was addressing the Tory faithful in Manchester rather than MEPs in Strasbourg, who remain somewhat sceptical of his vision of global Britain. Boris at least manged the rare feat of having leading politicians at both events calling for his head. EPP leader Manfred Weber urged Theresa May to sack him so they could have clarity on who was in charge. “London is very creative at putting red lines on the table for pleasing their party supporters but they fail to have any solution for the voters and citizen”. Weber continues to play the bad cop very effectively and the parliament’s resolution was unequivocal in its stance that the EU 27 should not move the talks on to the future relationship. There was also a warning from Jean-Claude Juncker for those who think that the UK could “go over Michel Barnier’s head” direct to national capitals and the display of EU unity remains impressive. While sympathy for Theresa May seems to be in short supply, there must surely be a realisation from the EU side that if she is to win the internal Tory battle over the future relationship, she is going to need a helping hand to out-manoeuvre Boris. Some flexibility may well be needed in next week’s talks to avoid a damaging break-down and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the EU27 fudging their October decision, concluding in true Brussels style that while “sufficient progress” had not been made, enough headway had been achieved to lead to an exploration of transition talks and a pre-scoping of the issues.

The Catalonia crisis has certainly taken the wind out of Juncker’s sails, and after all the feel good from his State of the Union speech, recent events are proving to be a real headache for the EU. A hastily convened debate merely highlighted the tightrope group leaders are walking between placating their Spanish contingent of MEPs while being seen to be responding to the scenes of violence. Frans Timmermans argued that “just because you feel passionately about something doesn’t mean you can just ignore the rule of law”. To some dismay in the Chamber, he went on to say “it is a duty of any government to uphold the rule of law and this sometimes requires proportionate use of force”. Others argued that the only real winners of all of this were the populists and extremists, an argument that was backed up by a list of speakers from the Eurosceptic ranks who claimed this showed the double standards being applied, a Union not of values but of “selective values”.

Lobbyists are once again in the firing line. For once it’s not accusations of over-lobbying but quite the opposite, shying away from giving evidence in hearings and committees of inquiry. Monsanto were the first company to fall foul of new rules to withdraw access badges in the event of a no-show, but the sights are already on Caterpillar, UBS and Credit Suisse for their refusal to give evidence to the Panama papers inquiry. The Greens, who have championed the rule change, have been accused of using the device to silence their critics.

While the May 2019 European elections may still seem far off, in that post-Brexit dystopia, it’s not too distant to influence the legislative cycle. At a meeting with Frans Timmermans, committee chairmen warned that any legislative proposals in the 2018 work programme that arrived after the spring would have little chance of being adopted in time. Given the time it takes to get major legislative proposals through trilogues, that may be on the optimistic side.

Amitiés

Richard

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Richard Steel

Senior Associate

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