Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Dear Fred,
Spare a thought for that most endangered of species, the British MEP. Not only have they had their life-expectancy cut to 18 months, they are now suffering the indignity of people fighting over their seats before they’ve even vacated them.

Donald Tusk announced in plenary that he would hold a special summit in
February to look at the future composition of the parliament once the Brits have
left. His clear preference was to adopt the simple rule: fewer countries, fewer
mandates. With a gaping big Brexit hole in the budget, saving a few million by
having 73 less MEPs surely makes sense. However, other member states are
circling around the corpse, keen to pick up an extra few seats to correct
perceived imbalances in their representation. And then there is the federalist
dream – a trans-national list to truly reflect European democracy. While there
seems no majority in the parliament to push this, it does have the backing of big
beasts like President Macron. Transnational lists for 2019 seems unlikely but the
ground work for 2024 may be being laid.

The February summit will also look at the Spitzenkandidat system which
delivered Jean-Claude Juncker as president in 2014. MEPs are naturally keen to
preserve a system which greatly increased their role. Names are already
circulating as to who the candidates for the big parties could be and it would only
be a cynic who linked Michel Barnier’s recent announcement that he will stand
down as Mr Brexit after 29 March 2019 with the fight for the EPP’s candidate.
Remember he ran against Juncker in 2014 – and somehow lost!

Brexit was only briefly on the agenda and the most newsworthy comment was
form President Tusk who praised the unity of the EU27 but warned that “the
toughest stress test” lay ahead in the future trade talks. He said it was up to
London how this will end “with a good deal, no deal or no Brexit”. It’s
intriguing to see that he still holds out the UK remaining as a viable option. As
usual, the headlines were more about comments in Westminster than
Strasbourg. Former Tory MEP, Chris Heaton-Harris, who along with early
Brexiteers Roger Helmer and Dan Hannan were nicknamed the H-Block, wrote
to British universities asking for the names of professors teaching Brexit and a
copy of their syllabus. One such professor described the letter as “McCarthyite –
it smacks of asking; Are you or have you ever been in favour of Remain?”.

October is traditionally the marathon budget vote and tradition dictates that
parliament reverses all the cuts proposed by Council. MEPs argue that the EU
cannot fight youth unemployment, boost R&D or finance infrastructure projects
without the necessary means. Among the €162.6 billion commitments, is the pet
project of EPP leader Manfred Weber, who has secured funding for free Interail
(not Interel) passes for 20,000 lucky 18-year olds. Under the hashtag
#discoverEU, he continues to push this simple (but costly) idea as the best way
to re-connect young people with Europe. I suspect the killjoys in the Council will
be less enthusiastic.

Remember the clocks go back this weekend. This welcome news provided
another opportunity for the stop-the- hour-change lobby to convince us this is a
dangerous and wasteful exercise. They were in Strasbourg this week, quoting
winners of the Nobel Prize for Medicine that the human body is made for a
steady biorhythm. Their arguments were going well up to the point when they
mentioned the other countries which had seen the light and stopped the practice
– Belarus, Turkey and Russia. It reminds me of the old jokes about UKIP, not
wanting to just stop the clock but set it back to the 1950s.

Amitiés

Richard

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Richard Steel

Senior Associate

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