Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
This was the week we were supposed to wave farewell to Juncker and Tusk and see the new von der Leyen Commission triumphantly sworn into office. MEPs had already scuppered that by rejecting three Commission candidates and both Juncker and Tusk have still some work to do before putting their feet up. Plenary is now due to vote in the new Commission on 27 November, but the narrow majority for von der Leyen and the size of the revolt against Sylvie Goulard indicate that this should not be taken for granted, while party discipline among the big three groups remains shaky. There is still no timetable for the next set of confirmation hearings, with Romania still desperately searching for a candidate who can navigate their way through the parliamentary minefield. The corridors however were abuzz with the news from Paris of Thierry Breton’s nomination and the arrival of a real industry leader at the heart of the Commission. Ironically it is his long business career that may prove his greatest risk in the hearings, with mutterings from the Left already about conflicts of interest and barely disguised suspicion of anyone making lots of money. For a man used to leading global champions he may also need to find the necessary level of humility to placate petulant MEPs. His relationship with Competition chief, Margarethe Vestager, will no doubt be a source of many questions, not least from his own Renew Europe family. He will also no doubt enjoy being re-united with his former colleague from those Chirac days, the new President of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde.
The delay in the new Commission taking office meant that the plenary debate on Jean-Claude Juncker’s legacy wasn’t quite the swansong that he had hoped for. He called it a love story but it read more like an end of term report – €440 bn mobilised in the Juncker investment plan, 83% less legislation, 15 trade agreements signed. On a more personal level, saving Greece from leaving the Euro was a high point while Brexit had basically been a waste of time and energy. Surely after sitting through 147 European Council meetings the man will finally retire? Not so for the other departing president, Donald Tusk, who looks set to take over the leadership of the wider EPP family from Joseph Daul. For a man who allegedly could hardly string a sentence together in English when taking up office, Tusk has been the most eloquent and effective communicator among the EU leadership. His twitter feed is essential reading and rather more to the point than that of the other Donald.
Someone not going anywhere is Michel Barnier, who seems to be the only person alive who can’t get enough of Brexit and has agreed to lead the new UK Task Force. There is still the small matter of adopting the Boris deal and Parliament was very keen to emphasise that they will have the last word and only vote once it finally passes through the House of Commons. They agreed in principle to a flexible extension until the end of January but are ready to do their duty should a deal be adopted beforehand. While the main groups are likely to fall into place behind the deal painfully negotiated by their leaders, the Parliament has proved itself an unpredictable beast of late and expecting British Labour, Liberal and Green MEPs to back it is a bit like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. Spare a thought though for those 27 “phantom” MEPs, elected back in May to replace the Brits when they leave, who are having to postpone the removal lorries for a few more months. The EPP are set to be the biggest net beneficiaries of the smaller post-Brexit parliament, with the three other leading groups all losing more members than they gain.