Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Postcard from Strasbourg

Dear Fred,
The race for the presidency is hotting up as another candidate joins the already crowded race. Following on the heels of Antonio Tajani’s coronation by the EPP group, the Greens have decided to send a Brit in to sort out the mess.

Jean Lambert becomes the fifth candidate to declare, leaving just the Liberals as the one major party to be still holding their cards close to their chest. Could Guy Verhofstadt ride to the rescue once Tajani and Gianni Pittella, the Socialist challenger, have fought each other to a standstill? A Juncker/Verhofstadt entente could be just as cosy as the one with Schulz, and would maintain the bonds forged in that most exclusive of clubs, the Spitzenkandidat. Ska Keller’s promotion to the Green’s front bench as co-leader with Phillipe Lamberts only adds to the staying power of this elite group. The vote for a new president on January 17 now looks like it will go into several rounds and all sides are concerned at the influence this could give to the extremists. Manfred Weber warned that Le Pen and Farage could become the kingmakers and Pervenche Beres, leader of the French Socialist delegation, called on Tajani not to accept the votes from the far-right. The whole business risks becoming very messy and whoever inherits Schultz’s crown is likely to preside over a bitterly divided House.  

Verhofstadt may decide he’s having much more fun playing Mr Brexit than being tied down by ceremonial duties of the president. He was at his most theatrical again this week, lambasting the poor Slovak presidency for insulting the very soul of the Strasbourg assembly by making no reference to their role in the Brexit negotiations which European leaders were due to adopt following the after-dinner mints on Thursday evening. If they were not immediately given front row seats at the negotiating table, he trumpeted, they would open up separate, parallel negotiations with the Brits. Employing his customary colourful language, he quoted former US President Lyndon B. Johnson that it was better having MEPs “inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in”. The metaphor must have had some limited effect as the EU 27 begrudgingly agreed to keep MEPs informed of what was going on, while keeping them well away from the actual negotiating table. The procedure they agreed on was that Michel Barnier and the Commission would lead the talks but to “ensure transparency and build trust”, the team would also include the European Council’s man Didier Seeuws and a representative of the rotating Council Presidency. The member states clearly intend to remain firmly in control of this process and last night’s declaration adds that they can decided to update the guidelines given to Barnier whenever they want.

One lasting British legacy to the working of the European Parliament will be the imprint of Labour MEP Richard Corbett on the internal rule book. The measures adopted this week were his fifth attempt at trying to make the Parliament work more effectively, which often translates as putting an end to abuses of procedure. Members will be limited to 20 written questions over a three month period to end the juvenile race among a handful of MEPs of trying to outdo each other. Over 60,000 questions are tabled every year. Out go the written declarations for worthy causes that rarely managed to win enough signatures. The most controversial aspects of the reform dealt with new rules to ban MEPs from being paid as lobbyists but a total ban on side jobs was a step too far. The rules now also state that they will only meet lobbyists on the Transparency Register and companies that refuse to give evidence at hearings or committee of inquiries will have their badges removed.

To end on an upbeat note, I leave you with the words of another American President, Ronald Reagan who said “Life is one grand, sweet song, so start the music”. A suitable way to wish you a Merry Christmas.



Richard Steel

Senior Associate

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