Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

The film La La Land is the hot tip for the Oscars this year. My dictionary offers two handy definitions for the term: “a place renowned for its frivolous activity” and “a euphoric dreamlike mental state detached from the harsher realities of life”.

Sound familiar? Strasbourg may not be LA, but to many it seems as close to real life as Hollywood, and MEPs clearly think Theresa May is setting up home in La La Land with her masterplan for Britain’s future. The usual gastronomic metaphors came out about having your cake and eating it and an end to cherry-picking, and threats of turning the UK into an offshore tax haven were seen as particularly bad form before talks had even begun. Guy Verhofstadt, the Parliament’s point man on Brexit, was quick to confirm that the EU was not out to punish the Brits but he had harsh words for Boris Johnson’s latest example of loose talk about Francois Hollande wanting to administer punishment beatings “in the manner of some world war two movie”. The reaction from the Boris camp was that this was further proof these Europeans have no sense of humour and maybe Verhofstadt and Barnier need to swot up on their Benny Hill and Monty Python if they are going to survive these negotiations. The German Green Jan Albrecht had clearly caught the mood when he tweeted his interpretation of May’s message as : “Go F*** yourself EU but don’t let us down. Whine; Whine”.

Verhofstadt’s role as sole negotiator for the Parliament may be at risk after offending the Socialists by jumping into bed with Tajani and the EPP rather than them. The EPP/Liberal agreement, unveiled to an unsuspecting audience on Tuesday morning, is a much more detailed pact than the EPP/Socialist deal from 2014 which could have fitted on the back of a beer mat. It promotes the idea of a Convention to reflect on the future of the Union and stresses that the Parliament must be at the Brexit table “beside the Council” as a pre-condition for giving their consent. This is a step up from the last minute concessions offered by the European Council in December which had originally made no reference to the Parliament and then begrudgingly said they would be kept informed of developments. The Socialists and Greens now say they have lost confidence in Verhofstadt after his overtures, first to Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement, and now to Berlusconi’s man, Antonio Tajani. One possible outcome is that they revert to the trio of MEPs that acted as Sherpas during David Cameron’s ill-fated pre-referendum negotiations, re-instating Elmar Brok and Roberto Gualtieri to keep Verhofsatdt in check.  

It took over twelve hours and four rounds of voting before Antonio Tajani was finally elected as President, which is no doubt good for democracy and was certainly good business for the various bars where everyone whiled away the time. Just as the Socialists were calling the grand coalition dead and putting clear blue water between them and the EPP, Tajani went to lengths to make clear he will be a very different president to Martin Schulz. His message was that he would not act like a prime minister, pushing his own agenda, but leave the politics to the political group leaders. His speeches to the real prime ministers in the European Council will no doubt be politely listened to but will lack the directness that Schulz was able to deliver.

La La Land is released in Brussels next Wednesday. It recalls the golden age of romantic musicals, youthful romance tinged with the realisation that art and love require sacrifice. Here’s hoping some of that magic rubs off on our political leaders as they enter the turbulent waters of 2017.

Richard