Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Dear Fred,
A word of warning. If someone with a lilting French accent calls up asking for €1.5 billion to help 18-year-olds discover Europe and fall in love with the EU project all over again, they have probably confused Interel with Interail. The free ticket scheme seems to be the latest desperate initiative to win popular approval since Juncker’s promise to provide free Wi-Fi in all city centres. The main drawback to the scheme is not the problem of funding but the demise of the night train. What Interail experience was complete without sleepless nights in a crowded couchette, sharing stale biscuits with new found friends?

VIP of the week was UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who altered his travel plans to be in Strasbourg to witness the EU ratifying the Paris climate agreement. Environment ministers and MEPs had desperately scrambled to get the vote through in time to avoid the ignominy of missing the cut-off date. You’d have thought they could have symbolically saved some air miles by slipping the signed copy into his hand luggage, but no, a host of EU dignitaries will be enjoying New York this weekend at the official deposit ceremony. The UN Secretary-General used the occasion to bid farewell to the European Parliament, with no hint as to what the future holds for him, but with a name like Ban Ki it’s surely only a matter of time before he joins Barroso in Goldman Sachs.

José Manuel Barroso and Neelie Kroes were the subject of much finger-pointing during a debate on the need to tighten up the cooling off period when Commissioners leave office. MEPs had clearly forgotten the old biblical injunction to remove the plank from your own eye in order to see better the speck in your brother’s. For months the big groups have been delaying a report that would apply stricter cooling off periods to MEPs and tighter restrictions on holding second jobs while in office. The Parliament, along with the Council, is also seen by NGOs as the most likely party to try and water down the provisions in the proposal for a mandatory Transparency Register, especially if they touch on any rights enjoyed by MEPs. Parliament will now appoint a negotiator to conclude an inter-institutional agreement.

As the mid-term reshuffle of top jobs get closer, the candidates are busy launching their campaigns. First up was Gianni Pitella, with a 13- page plan on why he should remain leader of the Socialist group. He continues to stoutly defend Martin Schulz’s right to a third term – if only to prevent him from taking his own job. Alain Lamassoure has officially launched his campaign to be the EPP candidate by standing down as head of the French EPP delegation. Both groups should have presented their candidates by mid-December, to run against the wild card Flemish MEP Helga Stevens who has already been selected by the ECR.

They could always take a leaf out of the UKIP book on how to choose a leader – jackets off and fists up. At what was billed as a “clear the air meeting”, UKIP MEPs took political in-fighting rather too literally and an argument spilled over into the corridors. Leadership favourite Stephen Woolfe had been accused of treachery in considering defecting to the Tories. Maybe his sense of judgement should have been more in question in picking a fight with a former soldier, especially one with a name like Hookem. No doubt harmony will return to the UKIP ranks at the news that their arch-nemesis Martin Schulz will launch an inquiry on the grounds that “disrespectful and violent behaviour have no place in the European Parliament”.


Richard Steel

Senior Associate

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