Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
Team Ursula starts work next Monday with a perfectly respectable vote of 461 giving it the legitimacy it required. Behind the voting figures are a myriad of stories. The EPP, Socialists and Liberals finally showed the party discipline so lacking in July’s vote on the President herself. The Greens chose to abstain, and so lost out on the last-minute concessions made by von der Leyen to the Socialists and Liberals to keep them on side. The Polish Law & Justice and Italian 5 Star, both governing parties, backed her team, while the more radical new elements of the ECR group from Spain, Netherlands and Italy voted against. Then there’s the particular case of Petra Kammerevert, the only Socialist to vote against, who really must bear a personal grudge. And why should Greek millionaire, Petros Kokkalis, who sits with Syriza and happens to own the country’s biggest football club, have backed her? It’s amazing what gems of insight the roll call vote reveals.
Von der Leyen introduced each of her new team as she went through her priorities, and if we were basing popularity on the clapometer, Timmermans and Vestager emerged triumphant. She regretted being only one woman away from gender balance, but that rule would now apply in each Cabinet and at all levels of management in the Commission. She may however need to do some wardrobe coordination with Jourova in future to avoid them looking like the Pink Ladies from Grease. And to prove that sartorial elegance applies to the men as well, Timmermans was looking remarkably casual by her side in a jumper and open-necked shirt.
Her speech didn’t add any new initiatives but she did confirm that Mariya Gabriel would now have ownership of Brussel’s latest acronym, IRCEY (Innovation, Research, Culture, Education, Youth). The most poignant part of her opening statement came with the recollection of the death of her 11 year-old sister from cancer and her parents sense of helplessness. She said that everyone one of us has a similar story and the fight against cancer remains a top priority in showing that Europe cares for the things people care about. It was a speech that deserved a better reaction than the tweet from German Green, Reinhard Butikofer, who said having heard it, he was already missing Juncker. Some Germans really do seem to dislike her.
With the UK election only two weeks away, we were spared another diatribe from the absent Nigel Farage, who would no doubt have choked on his pint at von der Leyen’s proud proclamation of being a Remainer. If Boris gets his way, Parliament may well be called to give its consent in January. How it will deal with the following trade talks remains to be seen and its not clear what role, if any, will remain with Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt. He had pinned all his hopes on chairing the Conference on the Future of Europe but rumours of EPP opposition may scupper his chances. Could Jean-Claude be already lured out of retirement to fill the role?
It’s fitting that, in a week that saw more female Commissioners take office than ever before, that the winner of the annual LUX Film Prize should be a story about the feminist struggle against conservative societies. “God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya” tells the story of a woman in North Macedonia who retrieves the holy cross thrown by the priest into the river in a religious tradition normally reserved for men. The critics however have been less than kind, with one review claiming that it asked big questions but didn’t answer them. Let’s hope that’s not the epitaph for Team Ursula.