Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Postcard from Strasbourg

If you were to pick a film that best captured the mood of the week it would be a tough choice between Fight Club and Les Misérables. The “altercation” between two UKIP MEPs last session was investigated by Parliament’s in-house Advisory Committee, led ironically by a Tory MEP, which concluded that the versions from the two MEPs differed so widely that

they were passing it over to the French authorities. In the absence of any eye-witnesses, this was truly a case only Inspecteur Clouseau could solve. UKIP’s own meticulous internal investigation put the blame squarely on Stephen Woolfe for inviting his colleague, Mike Hookem, to step outside and deal with this “man to man”. The fact that since leaving hospital Woolfe has also left UKIP on the grounds that it’s ungovernable of course had no bearing on the findings. Nigel Farage, fresh from the Trump campaign trail, was clearly having fun with the whole business and his invitation to EPP leader Manfred Weber, who called UKIP a bunch of “ruffians”, to “step outside” and settle this over a cup of coffee was somehow lost in translation.

All this male bravado failed to disguise the sense of despondency at the outcome of the latest EU summit and the failure of EU leaders to take decisions on Russia, refugees or the Canadian trade agreement (CETA). Group leaders blamed national egotism leading to deadlock, and Sophie in ‘t Veld for the Liberals claimed the only winners were Russia and China. She could have added the mighty Walloons who managed to even irritate their Socialist colleagues. The CETA debacle led to a good deal of soul searching on the future of EU trade policy, with the EPP and Liberals arguing that no future agreement would ever get through 38 parliaments and approval should just be left to the European Parliament. The Greens on the other hand hailed the Walloon Non as the result of the biggest mobilisation of people power since the anti-nuclear demonstrations in the 1980s.

In an attempt to lift the mood of doom and gloom, MEPs did what they do best – voted an increase in the 2017 budget. All the cuts made by the Council were reversed, reinstating the original budgets for the Horizon 2020 research programme and the infrastructure projects under the Connecting Europe Facility. With the Barroso and Kroes cases fresh in the memory, they also decided to hold 20% of the allowances for former Commissioners in reserve until the Commission had tightened up their rules on conflict of interests and revolving doors. Negotiations on the 2017 budget will now take place alongside the revision of the 5 year multiannual financial framework (MFF). One unforeseen problem they will have to deal with is the impact of the falling pound on the UK’s contribution to the budget. With the Brits unlikely to offer a top up and the other member states unwilling to pay more, a clever solution will need to be found. Brexit will also impact on the question of rebates, with all other rebates calculated on the basis of the British one.

The first physical manifestation of Brexit was the tearful farewell of Richard Howitt, who leaves the parliament after 22 years as MEP for the “bootiful” East of  England. He was unusually given the floor by Schulz to bid adieu, a gesture probably designed to annoy UKIP MEPs as much as possible.

Finally, a solution to the vexed question of what language the Brexit negotiations should be in. Belgian MEP Helga Stevens gave an elegant press conference in sign language on why she would make a good president of the parliament. Just imagine the progress that could be made if David Davies and Michel Barnier could only use hand gestures to negotiate.

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Richard Steel

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