POSTCARD FROM STRASBOURG BY RICHARD STEEL
Pity the Spanish voters. The week ended with the news that they will be called to vote on April 28 in a general election for the third time in three years – and then do it all over again a month later in the European elections. The campaign seemed to have already started before Pedro Sanchez’s announcement. Spanish MEPs from the EPP, S&D and ALDE sent a joint letter demanding that President Tajani prevent former Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont – a “fugitive from Spanish justice” – from attending a debate on Catalonia next Monday in “this temple of European democracy”. President Tajani may have other things on his mind having managed to insult not one but two member states with his remarks at a memorial of a World War II massacre. Leading Socialist and Greens MEPs from Croatia and Slovenia joined in calls for him to resign for remarks that they claimed implied a territorial claim on their land, which “showed historical revisionism .. and fascist, irredentist tendencies”. The election campaign has got off to a good start!
Tajani at least had one piece of good election news to announce as he signed an agreement to help mobilise voters with the body representing European professional footballers. Getting the youth vote out in May is seen as a priority and using role models, such as footballers and musicians, is part of the wider campaign. With 100 days to go to the elections, the parliament will start publishing its own projections of seats starting next week. It has also announced that the key Spitzenkandidat debate will take place in the Brussels hemicycle on 15 May. The Liberals will hopefully have unveiled their “Team Europe” of 7 candidates by then, but who knows how they will decide which one of them takes to the stage.
New Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay was in Strasbourg this week to press the flesh but was left in no doubt of the EU’s withering assessment of the state of the talks. Donald Tusk, the Brexiteers new bogyman, tweeted “no news is not always good news”. The ever-diplomatic Michel Barnier said “these are courtesy calls at best and we have nothing new to add”. Barclay could have done the courtesy of getting the name of Barnier’s boss right, referring to Jean Paul Juncker. Who was he mixing him up with, Gaultier or Belmondo, or do all French names sound foreign to a Brexiteer?
Guy Verhofstadt as usual had plenty to say about Brexit, none of it very complimentary, but his main headline of the week was calling Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte a “puppet”, or given that he did his whole speech in Italian, “il burratino di Salvini e Di Maio”. The Hof was equally scathing of Di Maio who had claimed last year that 5 Star was the Italian version of En Marche and yet now they support Les Gilets Jaunes. Socialist leader Udo Bullmann looked bewildered at why Di Maio was flirting with the Gilets – “what is this? What is the use of it?” Manfred Weber landed his own blow asking why Italy was blocking an EU position on Venezuela.
The Chamber seemed half empty for most of the week as MEPs were too busy racing between trilogue meetings to attend debates. The Romanian presidency notched up notable successes on gas pipelines, copyright and generic drugs and might even have scored a late victory on CO2 standards for trucks if the key negotiators hadn’t been held up in parallel talks on another dossier. The sign that time really is now running out was seen in MEPs accepting that a deal wouldn’t be reached in the lifetime of this parliament on Health Technology Assessment. They adopted a formal first reading and left it to the next parliament to complete.
P.S. Apologies for the missing January postcard – blame it on man flu.