Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
The BreXit Files, season 7, episode 1: “Return of the Cliff Edge”. Just when we thought we had reached peak-Brexit and we could sit back and enjoy a backstop-free Christmas, EU leaders turned up in Strasbourg to confirm that Brexit was far from being done and Christmas 2020 will bring yet another momentous milestone. The Ghost of Brexit Past was all too evident with the increasingly irrelevant Brexit MEPs now facing extinction. The Ghost of Brexit Present appeared with the acknowledgement that the UK will finally leave the EU at the end of January. It was the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that concentrated minds as the implications of a British refusal to extend the transition period into 2021 became apparent. Ursula von der Leyen assured MEPs the Commission would have a negotiating mandate ready for 1 February, but a deal by the end of the year would likely limit this to trade, fishing and security. Charles Michel, in his first Strasbourg speech as President of the European Council, stressed that a level playing field will be the EU’s new mantra. If Boris is tempted to veer away from EU standards in order to woo Donald Trump and place a deal with the US over that with the EU, then not even a “skinny” FTA appears likely. A happy ending such as the one in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol is far from certain.
The honeymoon period for the European Green Deal lasted barely a week before reality hit home. The week had already started badly with disappointing news emerging from the Madrid climate conference. Brazil’s role in the perceived failure was very much on show in the plenary debate on whether the Mercosur trade deal was compatible with the EU’s climate ambitions. News then emerged that the Commission had taken the highly unusual step of challenging a trilogue decision on truckers’ rights, where the conflict between green aspirations and social protection was all too evident. MEPs at least comforted themselves in the claim that they had put their own house in order, with the parliament becoming the first carbon neutral EU institution. Ambitious targets have been set for 2024, including a fully electric fleet of cars, purchase of e-bikes and scooters and a ban on plastic bottles. The Environment Committee has also taken the bold step of commissioning a study into the environmental impact of having two seats.
Malta is the latest country to come under intense scrutiny over rule of law and Parliament took the unprecedented step of calling for the immediate resignation of the Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat. The non-binding resolution followed a high profile delegation of MEPs to visit the island and further missions look set to increase as MEPs seek to increase their investigative powers. Renew Europe leader, Dacian Ciolos, was asked whether a group of MEPs should be sent to the Czech Republic to investigate allegations of misuse of EU funds by the Prime Minister, Andrej Babis, a member of his political family.
The re-election of Emily O’Reilly as European Ombudsman ensures another term for the fearless investigator into maladministration. The Irish journalist, turned watchdog, has a track record of taking on the establishment, most notably over the appointment of Martin Selmayr as Secretary General and turning the spotlight on Council transparency.
The week ended, as it had begun, with exhausted staff and Members facing a Belgian rail strike on Thursday to compound the misery of Monday’s journey, disrupted by pension protests in France. At least they got to enjoy their Christmas parties this year, unlike last year when the whole building went into lock-down following the attacks on the Christmas market.
Wishing you joy, peace and happiness this Christmastide,