Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

“Britain is an island, not a boat. It will remain where it is ...” must rank as one of the more astute observations about Brexit to emerge from all the sabre-rattling talk of recent weeks. The plenary debate on the Brexit negotiations was bound to be an exercise in hyperbole and MEPs from all sides did not disappoint.

Nigel Farage proved that he could just as easily get under the skin of President Tajani as he had that of Martin Schulz, with the cheap jibe that the EU was “behaving like the mafia, you think we’re a hostage. We’re not, we’re free to go”. Well go then was the reply, led by Manfred Weber who asked what he was still doing here. At least the Tories had the decency, he added, to let non-Brits lead the debate for the ECR group and he called for some procedural mechanism to prevent British MEPs having any influence on Brexit negotiations or on talks on the future of the EU27. He was no doubt deeply unhappy with the fact that Richard Ashworth, the Tory rapporteur on the Parliament’s 2018 budget, was able to reduce the proposed increase from 3.3% to 2.3%. This could see the moth-balling of some of the pet projects of Klaus Welle, Parliament’s secretary-general, such as the proposed lavish swearing-in ceremony for the next Commission president.

The resolution setting out Parliament’s red lines in the negotiation was adopted with a thumping majority and constitutes the first formal positon by an EU institution. It deliberately takes a more hard line approach than Donald Tusk’s draft guidelines, allowing Michel Barnier to play good cop, where he can blame his lack of wiggle room on a belligerent Parliament and the constraints of his mandate from EU leaders. EPP leader, Manfred Weber, has taken on the mantle of uber bad cop, and is in unforgiving mode. British politicians, he spelt out, must wake up to the reality of what Brexit means – “being alone”. How can euro-denominated clearing remain in London when it will become an “external place”? Why were the British so surprised that they should give Spain a veto on allowing Gibraltar to benefit from any future EU-UK trade deal? “From now on we will have the interests of the EU27 in mind, not the British. That’s the outcome when you leave the family”. Ouch.

It’s a lonely place being an outcast from the EPP family as Jacek Saryusz-Wolski found to his cost. The former EPP vice-president and Foreign Affairs Committee chairman cut a sad figure on the benches of the “non-inscrits”, sitting next to the pariahs whom even Le Pen won’t touch. He paid the price for being the fall guy in the Polish government’s attempt to unseat Donald Tusk.  Many would like to see him joined by the EPP members from Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party, who are testing the limits of the EPP’s patience with the move to shut down a leading university. The Socialists are also busy disowning their own. Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem was already in deep water with his unguarded comments accusing the “Club Med” countries of wasting their money on women and beer. His refusal to come to a plenary debate on the Greek crisis simply added to his growing unpopularity.

In a week dominated by Brexit, one final thought to leave you with. Under what circumstances would the Parliament go against an eventual deal agreed by their national leaders and exert their veto? Many will point to past votes on issues such as ACTA to demonstrate MEPs’ independent streak. However the moment they will be called on to vote in early 2019 will coincide with the decision on order of preference on party lists for the June 2019 EP elections. It will be a brave MEP to go against the party line.

Amitiés,

Richard

Author

Richard Steel

Senior Associate

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