Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
Tuesday evening’s tragic shootings at the Strasbourg Christmas market overshadowed this week’s proceedings. Terror struck just as MEPs and staffers were starting their round of Christmas parties and dinners, and stories were shared all week about where people had bunkered down as the drama unfolded. The parliament building itself went into lock down and Members were finally only allowed out – in the security of a police convoy- at about 3.30am. The wonderfully named DG SAFE came in for criticism for seeming to put the safety of Members above that of staff, and even MEPs were warned somewhat ominously that they left the building at their own risk. In the true spirit of “the show must go on” and not bowing to terrorism, the negotiations with Ministers on the European Agency for Energy Regulators (ACER) carried on throughout the night and happily ended with an agreement.
The Brexit melodrama was the other recurring theme of the week as MEPs tried to make sense of the chaotic scenes in Westminster. EP group leaders repeated the mantra that the Withdrawal Agreement was not open to negotiation and that Parliament’s consent should not be taken for granted and that assurances were needed on citizens’ rights. You almost get the sense they feel somewhat miffed that all the attention is on how the Westminster parliament will vote rather than on their own pivotal role in the ratification. They didn’t even get to welcome the “Bollocks to Brexit” bus, which rolled into Brussels on Thursday, as they were still in session 400kms away.
What better way to let out your frustration than give Martin Selmayr, the perennial pantomime villain, a good kicking. A non-binding resolution was passed with a comfortable majority condemning the manner in which the Commission appointed their new Secretary-General and calling on him to resign. Selmayr’s own political family, the EPP, decided to abstain. Intriguingly the name of Selmayr’s potential future boss, Manfed Weber, was missing from the roll call vote. For whoever does ascend to Juncker’s throne in July, there would be no better way to impress upon Parliament that you are your own man (or hopefully woman) than to free yourself of Juncker’s wingman.
Weber was on hand to welcome Parliament’s ratification of the EU’s trade agreement with Japan, saying this was a great example of how we need trade deals not trade wars. The Economic Partnership Agreement was heralded with great fanfare as the biggest bilateral trade deal yet, removing almost all custom duties, adding up to €1 billion annually for European companies. With the Council set to give its go-ahead next week, the agreement is due to enter into force on 1 February 2019. Separate negotiations are ongoing on an investment protection agreement, which could be a trickier file to agree on.
In a sign that the end is in sight for this legislature, MEPs agreed to add an additional voting session on Wednesday evenings to the five remaining plenary sessions. The January plenary will welcome the latest prime minister to share thoughts on the future of Europe, Spain’s Pedro Sanchez Perez-Castejon, as well as a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the euro. The Ode to Joy will no doubt echo around the Chamber.
Which just leaves me time to wish you joy and peace this Christmas, and a very happy new year,