Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Postcard from Strasbourg

Dear Fred,
The tag line for the 2016 work programme is “No time for business as usual” but the same list of ten priorities set out under 23 legislative initiatives, the same as last year, sounded very much like business as usual. MEPs worried by their shrinking workload may have taken some comfort in the new initiative to better address the challenge of the work-life balance and can anticipate more quality time with their loved ones. The starkest contrast to the fanfare around the 2015 programme was the low-key turn out. If the entire college of Commissioners had turned up, as they did last year, they would have outnumbered MEPs by two to one.

So how will MEPs fill their time? Scrutiny seems to be the answer, with committees increasingly turning to non-legislative reports on the implementation of key directives or additional question times to hold the Commission to account. The Holy Grail though remains the committee of inquiry, where MEPs picture themselves grilling key witnesses and pouring over internal documents stamped Top Secret. The special committee set up to investigate the Luxleaks scandal adopted its report this week and while it made a number of policy recommendations, the real story was their frustration at being denied access to key documents and their inability to force companies to give evidence. There was therefore some inevitability that when the “Dieselgate” scandal took a new twist this week, with evidence that the Commission knew more than they were letting on about defeat devices, that calls should come for a committee of inquiry to delve deeper. The target was less likely to be former Environment Commission Janez Potocnik, who is spoken of in rather saintly terms by the Green lobby, than former Industry Commissioner, turned MEP, Antonio Tajani. The adopted resolution on the VW scandal backed down from the request, instead giving the Commission five months to conduct a thorough investigation regarding the role and responsibility of Commission and national authorities.

The Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought has proved another useful vehicle for increasing the Parliament’s profile and there was widespread media coverage of the decision to grant this year’s prize to Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. His case gained international attention when he was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes spread over 20 instalments for insulting Islam in his blog. The announcement was slightly spoiled by an unseemly rush by a number of political groups to claim credit for the choice. It was also a good week for whistle blowers, with MEPs calling on member states to drop any criminal charges against Edward Snowden and prevent his extradition. One Swedish MEP became a whistle blower herself when she informed the President that Marine Le Pen’s neighbour, Dutch far-right MEP Marcel de Graaff, was using her voting card in her absence. Le Pen claimed his intentions were out of “chivalry” (merci cher Marcel I’m too busy to vote) but the Parliament’s authorities took a dimmer view of his eagerness to follow that old American adage of vote early and vote often. He may now be put in “detention” along with his Italian colleague suspended for wearing a Hitler moustache and an Angela Merkel mask. Halloween clearly came early to Strasbourg.



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Richard Steel

Senior Associate

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