Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
As Westminster politicians battle over whether there will be a Big Ben Bong to mark the UK’s transition to a third country, their counterparts in Strasbourg are unsure whether they should be throwing a party or holding a wake. Group leaders did decide that the Union Jack would be stored in the European House of History, catalogued no doubt as a warning to all who consider the same path. February 1 will certainly be celebrated by the 27 “phantom” MEPs who have been patiently waiting for the Brits to leave so that they can take their seats. The EPP come out best from the re-distribution of seats, losing no Brits but gaining five new members. The other main parties all make net losses, with Renew Europe hit particularly hard with a net loss of 11, the Greens 7 and the Socialists 6. It will make little difference to the overall balance of power, and the EPP/Socialist combined total still falls under the 50% mark. The far-right ID group have now leap-frogged over the Greens to become the 4th largest group, but look certain to remain ostracized and unlikely to pick up the chairmanship of the Legal Affairs Committee which should remain with Renew. The EPP numerical gain over the Socialists however may be short-lived if Fidesz’s 13 MEPs jump before they are pushed out of the EPP. It will not have been lost on Viktor Orban that the vast majority of the EPP backed the resolution calling for firmer action against Hungary and Poland, and he may well fall into the waiting arms of the Poles and the ECR Article 7 club. His only supporters in the EPP were the more hard right French, Spanish and Italian delegations, which says something about the tensions within the centre-right party.
This was not quite the last we’ll see of the Brits as they will have one last hurrah on 29 January when they ironically get to vote on their own demise as parliament gives its consent to the Withdrawal Agreement. We then move into the next stage of negotiations with a new cast of characters replacing the old Brexit Steering Group. Up steps David McAllister, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, to lead the new group, which will include Trade Chairman Bernd Lange, Security & Defence Chair Nathalie Loiseau from En Marche and former President Antonio Tajani. McAllister should be an interesting interlocutor in the talks, being close to Angela Merkel and able to use his Scottish roots to good effect.
There was also a sense of irony in British MEPs voting this week on the Conference on the Future of Europe, which they will not be part of. Parliament is keen to take the lead on this initiative given that it will deal with some of their favourite hobby horses like the Spitzenkandidat and trans-national lists. They envisage the Conference starting on Schuman Day, 9 May, which marks the 70th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration. The revised timetable probably suits the member states, allowing the German presidency to take the lead at the start and the whole thing wrap up in 2022 under the French presidency. Guy Verhofstadt looks to have secured the Chairmanship, which will not please the ECR group who have dismissed the Conference as a useless exercise with a pre-determined outcome to justify ever closer union.
As one national delegation gets set to leave, two MEPs who would dearly love to be part of a new national delegation finally took their seats. Former Catalan leaders Carles Puigdemont and Antoni Comin arrived in Strasbourg on Monday from their Belgian exile, but they may already be on borrowed time. A process to decide whether to lift their immunity has already started and the noises out of the three main groups sounds ominous for the separatists. In the meantime they are looking for a political group to take them in, with the Greens/European Free Alliance the most natural home.