POSTCARD FROM STRASBOURG BY RICHARD STEEL
The Brexit melodrama hit Strasbourg briefly on Monday night as Theresa May jetted in for last minute talks. She was greeted with a very French baisemain from Michel Barnier and was no doubt relieved to just get a peck on the cheek from Jean-Claude Juncker rather than his trademark smacker on the forehead. “Sealed with a kiss” was the Daily Mail headline but we already know that all she came back with from Strasbourg was a sore throat and bad cough. President Tajani managed to get in on the group selfie before she left but MEPs are still only bit players in this saga and can only watch on helplessly as the real fun and games take place in Westminster. With talk now of an extension to Article 50, British MEPs may get a stay of execution and my birthday, 29 March, may not turn out to be forever synonymous with this act of self-harm. It had been expected that it would be relatively easy to agree a short extension until 2 July when the new European Parliament is sworn in. However President Juncker made clear in his letter to Donald Tusk that any extension beyond 23 May would require the UK to hold elections. While he called this a “joke of history” the potential consequence of a hostile British public returning dozens of Farage-like MEPs should concentrate minds. EU leaders must also wake up in a cold sweat at the thought of a longer extension leading to Boris Johnson emerging triumphant as future prime minister and disrupting the EU’s heartfelt desire to move beyond Brexit.
Farage has left UKIP to join the new Brexit party and the 21 MEPs elected on a UKIP landslide in 2014 are now in open warfare and spread out between three political groups. The same is true of Le Pen’s Rassemblement Nationale, which just goes to show how hard it is to keep these far-right groupings intact when they can’t stand each other let alone their new colleagues. Putting together a populist super-group after the elections will face similar difficulties. Internal party cohesion is a problem across the whole political spectrum and the EPP will finally decide what to do about Viktor at next week’s summit. Udo Bullmann, the Socialist leader, warned of the spread of “Orbanisation” across the EPP, and he wondered how far this traditionally pro-European party could be seen as a reliable partner. Outrage at President Tajani’s comments that Mussolini wasn’t such a bad chap after all and had built nice roads and bridges will not have helped matters. The Socialists of course have their own domestic difficulties in Romania and Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt had to send a stark warning to the new Estonian Prime Minister; Juri Ratas, not to be tempted to form a coalition with the far-right Conservative People’s Party.
The parliament’s attempt to woo the youth vote took a dive this week when a delegation of 60 school children who have been part of the street protests outnumbered the MEPs taking part in the debate on the EU’s long-term climate strategy. They were not impressed that they weren’t allowed to take part in the debate and were equally dismissive of the level of ambition in the debate. Attempts by some MEPs to make some electoral capital out of their visit also went down as badly as a double dose of maths homework.
The parliament was also left looking slightly silly in failing to give any recommendations on future trade talks with the US. The resolution, supported by the left of the house, had called on member states not to endorse the Commission’s negotiating mandate, arguing that you couldn’t hold talks while steel duties still applied. This failed to get a majority and gives an indication of how difficult it will be to get trade deals through the next parliament populated with even more opponents of free trade from the populist right and left.
No postcard would be complete without the latest rumblings over the Strasbourg seat, and the French will be particularly worried that it is the new German CDU leader who is talking about abolishing “anachronisms”. French Europe Minister, and now semi-official candidate to lead the En Marche list, Nathalie Loiseau, was quick to talk up Strasbourg as the capital of European democracy and a symbol of French pride.
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