Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Dear Fred,
It looks like the countdown to the 2019 European Parliament elections has started two years in advance. This week saw desperate attempts by senior MEPs to avoid a series of issues that risked damaging the parliament’s image and reputation.

Members’ generous office allowances has long been a grey area and an investigation by a group of journalists forced President Tajani into quickly setting up a working group to “clarify” the existing rules. This comes on top of a series of allegations of MEPs misusing public funds, with Roger Helmer, the colourful UKIP MEP, the latest to stand in the dock. He has chosen to jump before being pushed and will resign before the summer. The next potential banana skin was a proposal from EP Secretary-General, Klaus Welle, to replace or refurbish the Brussels hemicycle building, which was only built in the 1990s. The cost of almost half a billion euros was enough to convince the Bureau that this might not go down too well with a cash-strapped public and more studies were called for. As the elections get closer we can expect more desperate attempts to avoid tabloid headings about MEPs on the make and extravagant building programmes.

There was little sympathy for Theresa May and the predicament she finds herself in one week before the start of the Brexit negotiations. Manfred Weber claimed London was “sinking into chaos”, while Gianni Pittella blamed the “insanely relaxed attitude of the British Prime Minister” for getting them into this mess. Everyone wanted the talks to begin soon, even Nigel Farage, and ECR leader Syed Kamall felt obliged to apologise to the rest of Europe for keeping everyone waiting. Gut Verhofstadt, the EP’s Brexit coordinator, still argued for an Association Agreement as the best outcome that would allow relations to go beyond just goods and trade to areas of common concern like security, research and education. As they celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Erasmus programme, he was keen that the scheme remained open to young Brits – and that young Europeans could still benefit from time spent in the UK.

It was an interesting week for the EPP/ALDE partnership that has replaced the EPP grand coalition with the Socialists. Weber and Verhofstadt launched together a call for a special committee on counter-terrorism on the grounds that exchange of information between member states was just not working. Time and again, they argued, those carrying out terrorist acts were known to one authority but the information wasn’t getting passed on properly. Their cooperation was also visible in two highly controversial amendments which the Socialists labelled scandalous. The first concerned the report on country by country tax reporting, where they steered through an amendment providing a more flexible safeguard clause. The second example dealt with the sectors not covered by the ETS, where a series of EPP/ALDE amendments watered down some of the more ambitious commitments adopted by the Environment Committee. When pressed to justify their position, Guy Verhofstadt reminded the Left that they can’t negotiate with Council without a strong majority and that inevitably requires compromise from all sides.

The week ended with high-fives all around as the end of roaming charges finally came into effect. This is the sort of story the parliament will desperately try and push in the build-up to the elections. The photo op had President Tajani surrounded by Erasmus students, the other great EU success story, holding up their mobile phones in victory. Sometimes you get the feeling that they try just a bit too hard.



Richard Steel

Senior Associate

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