Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Dear Fred,
The EU press corps are a feisty lot and have been in particularly combative mood of late over the whole Selmayr shenanigans. They are used to a certain amount of pandering by the political groups, eager to get some column inches for their leaders.

So imagine their outrage when they were accused this week of “pumping out” EU propaganda and told to learn some manners in dealing with elected MEPs or leave the room. The spat developed during a press conference hosted by the far-right Italian politician, Matteo Salvini, flanked by colleagues from other far-right parties, and with a front row of noisy supporters cheering his every word. Salvini has shot to prominence by taking his Lega party beyond that of Silvio Berlusconi, thereby putting himself in pole position to be the next Italian Prime Minister. His words will have been as uncomfortable to EU leaders as they were aggravating to the press. He described the EU as “destructive” and said that next year’s elections would give people the right to take back their identity. He was willing to ride roughshod over the EU’s 3% deficit target, cosy up to Russia and get Italians producing more babies. The euro was an “ill-conceived currency” and the only crumb of good news was that he opposed an “abrupt” Italian exit from it.

Salvini and his acolytes want to build on recent successes in Italy and Austria in the 2019 Euro-elections. It will be interesting to see if they put up a Spitzenkandidat to generate more publicity for their ideas. The 2014 leaders’ debates suffered from there being little noticeable difference between the pro-European views of the main candidates. With the Conservative ECR group now talking of putting up a lead candidate in 2019, voters can at least expect competing visions and some heated exchanges. TV ratings, as well as turnout, may even go up.

The contest for the Socialist leadership, following the departure of Gianni Pittella, is down to a two-horse race between the German, Udo Bullmann and the Belgian Kathleen van Brempt. The latter has launched a campaign called “Dare to change” where she admits that Socialists got it wrong by going too willingly into governments that were prepared to destroy parts of social welfare systems for budgetary reasons. While the Socialists have taken a hammering in recent elections (think Italy, France, Germany, Austria) they welcomed with open arms one of their rare successes, Antonio Costa, the Prime Minister of Portugal, who was the latest leader to debate the future of Europe. Expect even more excitement when President Macron takes to the stage next session.

Martin Selmayr had few friends in the chamber on Monday evening as MEPs expressed their outrage at his alleged power grab and the damage the whole episode has done to the Commission’s reputation, not least in those countries currently in the dock over the rule of law. Sophie in t’ Veld for the Liberals had the most memorable lines, accusing Juncker’s so-called political Commission of being “led by the nose by a civil servant”. She warned somewhat ominously that the appointment must be corrected:“that is a precondition of our continued support for this Commission”. MEPs will adopt a resolution at the April sitting following an investigation by the Budgetary Control Committee.

While Brussels hacks may still be fulminating over Salvini’s rant at them, the sub-editors at the Economist were clearly in creative over-drive when it came to their headline for the hasty departure of the American Secretary of State: “Tyrant is sore at Rex”. MEPs are certainly sore with the “tyrant” slapping massive anti-dumping customs duties on Spanish olives and even more fearful of the possible next targets – French cheese, Italian wines and German sausages. A clear recipe for disaster.

Bon appétit.



Richard Steel

Senior Associate

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