Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Dear Fred,
What do Luxembourg, Columbia and Guinea have in common? Tax havens, good coffee, the viviparous toad? No, the leaders of all three countries will be queuing up in the May part session to address a plenary short of legislative files to keep it busy.

This month of course it was President Macron getting the full red carpet and Ode to Joy treatment and this series of debates on the future of Europe will see Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki enter the lion’s den in June, Alexis Tsipras in September and Angela Merkel in November. Charles Michel doesn’t even have to leave home when he addresses MEPs in Brussels at the mini-plenary on 2 May.

These debates have provided a platform for a proper dialogue on where Europe is going and although President Macron was fashionably late, keeping MEPs waiting for 20 minutes, he sat through all three hours of the debate and appeared genuinely engaged. On top of all the rhetorical flourishes on combatting the populists, he threw out a number of concrete proposals, from taxing big tech companies to a willingness to increase France’s contribution to the EU budget provided more own-resources were found. He gave no clues as to where his future En Marche MEPs would sit in the hemicycle, teasing them with the line that it was his “freedom” not to join a political group. Given that the EPP is widely expected to emerge the biggest group from next year’s elections, he’s unlikely to lure any of their member parties to join him and he’s most likely to exert influence by leading a new grouping that could partner with the EPP to build support for his policy initiatives, like eurozone reform. Rumours of teaming up with the Italian 5-star movement continue to circulate and, with the Spanish Ciudadanos as potential members, he could form a good-sized group. The EPP still don’t seem to know whether to fully embrace his pro-European stance or see him as an electoral threat. I hear that they have scheduled a closed meeting in May under the title “Macron, friend or foe?”.

Interest in the Selmayr saga was beginning to sag outside that dedicated band of journalists and left-wing MEPs who still scent blood. The Commission was duly reprimanded for a flawed procedure but an amendment calling for the appointment to be reversed was easily rejected. Gunter Oettinger said he was willing to sit down with the other institutions to see how the rules could be improved but leading MEPs will be nervous at having their own opaque system of political “parachutage” put under too much scrutiny. The old adage of people living in glass houses not throwing stones could equally apply to the start of the negotiations on a mandatory Transparency Register, which kicked off in Strasbourg on Monday (yes, behind closed doors). While MEPs are keen to bring in the Council they remain resolutely against being forced to publish their own meetings on the pretext that this impinges on their duties.

It was a quiet week on the Brexit front but the news that free trade agreements (FTA) are due to be signed with Japan and Singapore this year carries some significance. Trade negotiators take the latest FTA as the template for the next one, so Canada was seen as an advance on South Korea and Japan is an improvement on Canada. UK negotiators could do well to have a close look at the terms agreed. The Commission presented the trade part of the accords as “EU-only” agreements, thereby depriving the Walloons of another moment of glory. DG Trade is likely to lead the Brexit trade talks once the Article 50 Task Force comes to an end on 29 March 2019 and all eyes will be on who replaces Cecilia Malmstrom in one of the most sought-after posts in the new Commission.