Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Dear Fred,
In a week full of noble causes – the Democratic opposition in Venezuela winning the Sakharov prize, sweeping recommendations from the inquiry committee on tax crimes, prolonging and expanding the EU investment plan up to €500 billion – it was the humble kebab that dominated the headlines.

It was one of those stories much loved by the British tabloids, but this time it was the German press that had been whipped-up into near hysteria that the health police in Brussels were going to ban their favourite late-night snack. The Socialists claimed they weren’t looking for a ban but simply to make kebabs more healthy, which sounds like a contradiction in terms. The phosphate added to the meat, they claimed, could cause heart or kidney disease but strangely no mention of indigestion. In stepped Renate Sommer, whose press release headed “hands off the kebab” left no doubt what populist route she was taking. She enlightened us with the knowledge that without phosphates kebabs would “collapse into the form of an elephant foot”. Now there’s an image worth conjuring up. The objection to the Commission’s proposal fell tantalisingly short of the majority needed and German kebab shops can breathe a sigh of relief.

The Brexit debate risked being a bit of an anti-climax given the green light on “sufficient progress” from the Commission taking away any sense of suspense. And so it was almost with a sense of relief that David Davis’ ill-chosen words about the agreement only being a “statement of intent” were pounced upon as signs of perfidious Albion already trying to wriggle out of its commitments. “Remain cautious and calm” intoned Michel Barnier, but also “be vigilant”. Following his tea with Theresa May at No. 10, Manfred Weber resumed his role as Brexit attack-dog and warned that trust had been damaged. He added that there was no guarantee that there would be a transition period and it would all depend on the results of the second round of talks. So much for reassuring business that the cliff-edge had been avoided. David Davis tried to repair some of the damage done by phoning “my friend” Guy Verhofstadt to reassure him that the UK would convert the deal into legal text as soon as possible. He should maybe have advised his other good friend Boris Johnson that poking fun at Jean-Claude Juncker by saying “Caesar Augustus in Brussels has declared sufficient progress” was maybe not the language expected of the head of British diplomacy. As one commentator dryly pointed out, remember that Rome ruled Britain for 400 years after Caesar.

Much of the chatter in the bars scattered around the building, including the new Members’ Bar next to the hemicycle (thirsty work all that voting), centred on the rumours of Emmanuel Macron looking to create a European En Marche. There was much talk of the 70 MEPs from 21 member states and across the political groups who had signed a document supporting Macron’s vision for Europe but it became clear this was not the start of a mass exodus to form a new group in 2019. His dilemma is that the EPP and Socialists already have well-established European structures and he won’t fit easily into either. It was announced that he will create a task force to build these links over the next 18 months. Maybe the man who called for an EU agency on disruptive innovation is going to prove a disruptive force of his own.

Reassuringly, the week ended with the traditional handover of the flame of peace of Bethlehem to the accompaniment of a children’s choir and some good old-fashioned oompah music from a brass band.

Merry Christmas



Richard Steel

Senior Associate

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