Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
With the House of Commons shut down, MEPs were revelling in the fact they were the only Parliament where Brexit could be discussed, but the ill-tempered debate was unlikely to change entrenched positions. EPP leader, Manfred Weber couldn’t resist taunting the Brexiteer benches that they had fought for Westminster to take back control only to have it shut down. Dacian Ciolos, the Romanian head of Renew Europe, argued that if his country had closed its parliament there would have been immediate demands for Article 7 proceedings on breach of the rule of law. Guy Verhofstadt, still hanging in there as the EP’s Brexit coordinator, had tweeted earlier in the week that Boris Johnson’s no-show at the press conference with Xavier Bettel (a “pipsqueak” according to Nigel Farage) showed he had transformed from the Incredible Hulk to the Incredible Sulk. He also had a stark warning that the EU would not sit by and give the UK the advantage of free trade while not aligning with EU environmental and social standards. “We are not stupid” he said, “we will not kill our own companies, economy, single market, and never accept Singapore by the North Sea”. Perhaps the only positive thing to flow from the debate and resolution, which was adopted with a thumping 544 votes in favour, was an invitation from Boris to EP President, David Sassoli, to come to London for tea. Someone must have helpfully whispered in his ear that the EP has the means to scupper any future deal and best to keep them onside.
The Commissioner hearings promise to be another gladiatorial fight with an alarming number of candidates inconveniently finding themselves under official investigation. The Hungarian, Laszlo Trocsanyi, is not one of them but still finds himself the number one target. The Greens claimed it was “provocative” for Orban to nominate the architect of his attack on fundamental rights. Manfred Weber replied that every candidate deserved a fair hearing and rejecting Trocsanyi would only lead to another Fidesz candidate. He didn’t however explain why Trocsanyi was missing from a team photo of EPP Commissioners. There was even more hand-wringing over the names of the portfolios, which the Socialists claimed were more like slogans than job descriptions. Linking the protection of the European Way of Life with migration has been the most vilified. Again Weber came to its defence, arguing that solidarity, tolerance and protection of human rights, including those of migrants, was very much central to his view of the European way of life. “We must not allow Le Pen and the extremists to hijack this issue”. We should also expect some of the missing policy areas, such as culture, research and social Europe, to find their way back onto a job title.
The potential bromance between the Greens and the Italian 5 Star Movement (M5S) created a frisson of excitement in the bars but still has a long way to go before becoming a political reality. Ditching Salvini and forming a more pro-EU government with the Socialists has removed the initial hurdle, but the 14 M5S MEPs may just be too big for the Greens to digest. Not only would they be the second biggest national delegation behind the Germans, but as the only senior governing party in the Group, they could become too demanding. A better fit may be Renew Europe and right on cue President Macron was bestowing his blessing on the new government in Rome this week? Macron might have also had his eye on the Italian Socialist MEPs loyal to Renzi, who set up his own En Marche style party in Italy this week, but no defections are thought likely.
Parliament gave its backing to new ECB President Christine Lagarde in a non-binding vote that still saw her only gain 11 more votes than Ursula von der Leyen managed back in July. Majorities are clearly hard to secure in this new parliament and all eyes are now on the 23 October vote on the new Commission. Just the small matter of the hearings to get through.