Post Card from Strasbourg
Forget the size of the Recovery Fund, or whether it’s made up of loans or grants, frontloaded or backloaded, aimed at the south or the east, the key question is what to call it and please let it not be another acronym. The Marshall Fund was named after the US Secretary of State, George Marshall, who pushed the post-war relief programme through Congress. Charles Michel, President of the European Council, pushed the idea of a De Gaspari Plan, a nice diplomatic gesture to soothe Italian sensitivities. EPP leader Manfred Weber spoke about it being this generation’s Schuman moment but we already have the Schuman Plan, whose 70th anniversary was recently celebrated. Could we leave it to the public to decide a catchy title or would the trolls engineer an embarrassing winner as was the case with the British polar research vessel so nearly christened Boaty McBoatface.
The plenary debate on the Recovery Fund saw a welcome physical return to the front benches of the main political group leaders. They were keen to stress that if the five main groups, including the Polish dominated ECR, could agree on a joint resolution, then their leaders could also settle their differences. Objective number one was to ensure MEPs’ consent was needed for both the MFF and the Recovery Fund, and assurances were given. It was hard to recognise who was there, hidden behind their obligatory face masks, but the growing numbers signalled a small return to normality.
Another sign that things were slowly getting back to normal was another bout of Viktor Orban bashing. MEPs called for a halt to payments and immediate Article 7 sanctions proceedings following the imposition of an open ended state of emergency and locking up of random dissidents accused of scaremongering. MEPs were also in no mood to accept British intransigence over their future relationship and in a sign of things to come, rejected a Council decision on the exchange of fingerprints until the UK guaranteed full reciprocity and data protection. It was not a good week for the Brits as the Commission had just slapped infringement proceedings against them for failure to comply with EU law on free movement of EU citizens. June’s high level conference to take stock of the talks looms ominously on the horizon.
Another country firmly in the sights of a number of MEPs was China. Members from the far right accused Europe of kow-towing to the Chinese, conjuring up the unflattering image of EU leaders and diplomats prostrate before the Asian superpower. But it wasn’t just the swivel-eyed extremists on the right calling on the EU to be less naïve and protect strategic sectors against hostile takeovers. A group of former Commission trade officials made the same warning, pointing out that Chinese and American competitors would receive massive subsidies with little obligation to repay and could emerge from the crisis earlier than Europe and unfairly take EU industry’s market share.
Parliament slowly seems to be mastering the digital tools needed to run multi-lingual, remote meetings and is now able to organise up to a dozen meetings a day, with Fridays suddenly returning as full working days. There are reports of more people listening in and greater outreach than in pre-crisis times and many of these practices may remain when so-called normality returns. What is clear is that they are in no rush to open wide the doors to visitors or outside events and so we will have to remain distant observers for a few more months.