democracy and fundamental rights in Malta, brought to a head by the allegations swirling around the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Frans Timmermans urged Members to respect the memory of Daphne, who had the Strasbourg press centre named in her honour, by not turning the debate into a party political dog fight. His pleas fell on deaf ears, as Members from the governing parties in Poland and Hungary saw the opportunity to drag a Socialist-led government into the fight over rule of law.
The Socialists cried foul, arguing that while Malta had issues to deal with, they were not at the same systemic level as the Orban and Szydlo regimes. Malta is certainly far off the sanctions procedures that were launched against Poland this week, which now puts it in the same boat as Hungary in the preliminary stages of formally asking the Council to activate article 7. The Polish vote was marked by the walk-out of the normally mild-mannered leader of the ruling PiS party, Antoni Legutko, who accused the Commission of “colonial habits” and the German press of an “anti-Polish orgy”. The vote also saw alleged “harsh words” between the EPP’s Polish and Hungarian delegations following the decision by Fidesz MEPs to go against the EPP line and vote against the resolution and then put out a press release “crossing all red lines of solidarity” according to the equally mild-mannered leader of the Civic Platform, Janusz Lewandowski.
It was a bad week for party discipline and cohesion. Manfred Weber, EPP leader, was put on the spot when asked if he could support the new coalition in Sicily that saw Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in coalition with two avowedly anti-European parties. Could he stay in the EPP if this was replicated at the national level? The EPP/Liberal alliance also took a beating when the ALDE candidate to replace Alexander Lambsdorff as EP Vice-President, the German Liberal Gesine Meissner, was comfortably beaten by a candidate from the Italian 5-Star Movement. ALDE had been given the prize of a second VP following their support for Antonio Tajani as President, but that deal now seems to be in doubt. Voting figures would indicate that not all the EPP supported Meissner, and with Manfred Weber off in London having tea with Theresa May, the normal EPP discipline seems to have waivered.
The tea at number 10 clearly has restorative powers. Manfred Weber has revelled in his role as Brexit bad cop, informing the press on Tuesday that a deal in December was looking highly unlikely. By Wednesday he had changed his tune, convinced there had been a significant shift in the UK’s position and that there was political willingness to see progress. This new feel-good factor didn’t seem to extend to Weber’s fellow group leaders who have declined a meeting with Theresa May on 24 November on the grounds that she won’t address the full plenary. Nothing to do, of course, with MEPs reluctance to be in Brussels on a Friday.
The new revelations in the Paradise papers come at an awkward time for the parliament, as its committee on the Panama papers holds its last meeting at the end of the month. Some would like to see the committee’s mandate extended or even set up a permanent committee on tax issues to keep up the pressure. The plenary debate indicated that most MEPs didn’t feel the new documents added anything new but they do give an indication of the scale of the problem and help maintain pressure on national governments. Pierre Moscovici was clearly still in the Halloween spirit, calling tax evaders vampires “they don’t seem to fear anything except light, so it us up to us to generate that light”.