POSTCARD FROM STRASBOURG BY RICHARD STEEL
President Tajani has launched what the Parliament’s press services excitedly call “ a ground-breaking new website” demonstrating the EU’s positive impact on people’s lives. It sets out in jargon-free terms the benefits of membership and is clearly aimed at showing hesitant voters that the EU really does make a difference. The interactive, multilingual site goes under the heading “What Europe Does for Me” which to any Monty Python fan immediately brings to mind the famous rhetorical question in the Life of Brian – What have the Romans ever done for us? “So apart from the roads, which go without saying, the aqueduct, sanitation, irrigation, medicine, education, wine, public baths and public order – what have the Romans ever done for us?” Maybe a bit of light humour could liven up interest in the EP election campaign.
Angela Merkel rode into town, with the poignant image of her and Emmanuel Macron hand in hand at the Armistice ceremony fresh in our minds. No wonder the 100-year old lady, thrilled to meet the Chancellor, mistook her for Madame Macron. Her message to plenary on the future of Europe was suitably sombre and those hoping for a tub-thumping bold vision of the future had clearly mistaken who was addressing them. She warned that nationalism and egoism must never have a chance again in Europe and her speech briefly flickered into life when she was heckled by the Eurosceptics for calling for a true European army. She smiled, saying she was happy she was annoying some people and it was good to be back in parliament. She of course now risks the ultimate backlash for anyone advocating a European army – a tweet from Donald Trump.
It was Romania’s turn in the naughty chair this week, with a resolution stating MEPs were “deeply concerned” about the reform of the judiciary which risks undermining the fight against corruption. They are not quite into Article 7 territory and there are no calls yet to expel the PSD members from the Socialist group. With 14 MEPs they are likely to remain one of the largest national delegations in the S&D in the next parliament and the group can ill afford to lose any more members. EPP leader Manfred Weber, in need of Socialist support if he is to fulfil his ambition to become Commission President, tried not to make too much party politics out of it. Romania and Malta needed to act but he went out of his way to praise the positive actions being taken by the Socialist-led Slovakian government. He did however agree with concerns expressed by the Romanian President that it would be difficult for Romania to take over the EU presidency in January with these rule of law questions still hanging over them. Those efficient Finns have said they are up and ready to step in 6 months early and replace them.
MEPs backed a significant increase in EU spending on climate action, R&D, transport infrastructure and the Juncker Investment plan in the post-2020 budget. They want the seven-year MFF increased from 1.1% to 1.3% of Gross national income, with funding for climate rising from 25% to 30% by 2027 at the latest. They are keen to get talks started with Council as soon as possible to meet President Juncker’s stated aim of agreement by the Sibiu summit on Europe day (9 May 2019) and before the elections. The Council seem rather less inclined to rush.
A final word on Brexit at the end of a week of high drama. The ink was hardly dry on the 585-page deal before Michel Barnier was back in Strasbourg briefing MEPs and keeping them on-side. His standing among MEPs and EU leaders has never been higher and his name still circulates as a potential Commission President. Parliament will set out its response to the Withdrawal agreement in a non-binding resolution in the next month or so, before voting in March on whether to give its consent. Consent to what may be the question by March given the shenanigans going on in Westminster.