POSTCARD FROM STRASBOURG BY RICHARD STEEL
The times, they are a-changin’. Spare a thought for the 460 MEPs, new to the ways of Strasbourg, who tried to make sense of their first week on the job. First up, they were greeted on Tuesday by thousands of flag-waving Catalans, protesting that three separatist MEPs had been denied the right to take up their seat. Our newbies better get used to this as their new home is a magnet for a glittering variety of protests and demonstrations. They had hardly found their seats in the Chamber when they were then subjected to the Brexit debate in microcosm, as Leavers and Remainers tried to outdo each other in playground politics. Nigel Farage ordered his 29 Brexiteers, plucked from obscurity, to turn their backs on the European anthem, Ode to Joy, while the 17 resurgent Lib Dems rocked up in bright yellow T-shirts emblazoned with their campaign slogan “Bollocks to Brexit”. A tricky one for the interpreters. Our new MEPs were no doubt left thinking, Ah yes, this is the famous British humour of Monty Python and Benny Hill.
Monty Python did in fact get a mention when it came to the more serious matter of digesting the deal served up by the EU leaders on the Commission president. Ryszard Legutko, the Polish leader of the ECR, who delivers every speech in an impeccable Oxford English, announced that the deal meant the Spitzenkandidat process was dead, “dead as the parrot in the Monty Python sketch”. Even Donald Tusk’s EPP colleagues couldn’t resist sticking the boot in, accusing him not only of sacrificing their own Manfred Weber but of trying to tell them it was up to the Parliament to ensure regional balance by electing a leader from Eastern Europe. The Council’s recommendation that Timmermans and Vestager be made senior VPs in the Commission as some form of consolation prize was also criticized as straying into areas outside their remit. The majority in favour of David Sassoli as EP President indicates the struggle Ursula von der Leyen will have in securing her own majority. Over 100 votes that should have gone to Sassoli from the EPP and Renew Europe seem to have gone astray, to either the Green or Conservative candidate. The Socialist camp looks likely to be evenly divided, with the leading Spanish and Italian delegations keen to protect their spoils (Borrell and Sassoli) while the Germans are livid that they had the Commission presidency tantalisingly close and ended up once again with the left-overs.
The Greens were honest enough to admit that the Parliament had only itself to blame for failing to rally behind a single candidate and force the Council’s hand. While they have not benefitted yet from the top job share-out, they will have been encouraged to hear Donald Tusk’s appeal to EU leaders, and von der Leyen in particular, to put forward Green candidates for the Commission, no doubt with the added incentive of a juicy portfolio. Their key objective however remains a greening of her priorities and they will be tough negotiators.
Whatever MEPs might think of the backroom deal delivered by their national leaders, they proved once again they are perfectly adept at a stitch-up of their own. So when it came to electing the 14 vice-presidents, they connived to vote down the far-right and ECR candidates in favour of the 5 Star MEP Fabio Castaldo, even though he and his colleagues remain homeless in the non-inscrits. The same cordon sanitaire is likely to prevent Salvini and Le Pen’s acolytes from taking the Agriculture and Legal Committee chairs next week, and it will be fascinating to see how this snub influences their participation in committee work.
The travelling circus will be back in just ten days’ time for the serious business of electing a Commission president. It could be a close run thing and Ursula von der Leyen will need careful guiding. Could she be tempted to turn to a certain Martin Selmayr to steer her home, releasing him from his sec-gen post to head her cabinet and solve the dilemma of two Germans heading the Commission?