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Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Cher Grégoire,

After all the tearful farewells to the Brits and the singing of Auld Lang Syne, it was a more subdued welcome for the 27 new MEPs who have been patiently waiting in the wings for their turn on the centre stage. An Estonian army general, another Catalan separatist and the Italian partner of far-right darling Marion Meréchal Le Pen all took their seats. Perhaps the most intriguing of the new intake is Sandro Gozi, a former Italian Socialist Minister for Europe and member of the Prodi cabinet, who was elected on the Macron Renaissance list as a symbol of what trans-national lists could look like. He will at least have some company in the ranks of Renew Europe as Nicola Danti, another Renzi loyalist, became the first Italian to break ranks and leave the S&D to join Renew. It’s hardly a wave of Italian liberalism but it could make it harder for the homeless 5 Star MEPs to ever join Renew. The Greens seem to have decided that the 14 strong 5 Star delegation is just a bit too big to digest.

The new MEPs could be forgiven for not being totally up to speed on what they were voting on this week, including the ratification of the trade deal with Vietnam. The vote showed this new Parliament could still pass trade deals but also that it demanded a price, in this case significant labour reforms. Their support for the Mercosur agreement will likely hinge on much tougher language on environmental protection and any number of factors could determine how they will vote on any future deal with the UK. MEPs were as puzzled as Ursula von der Leyen in trying to work out quite what the Brits meant by an Australian model for the future agreement given that they are currently trading on WTO terms. Maybe it was an oblique reference to Aussie rules, a tough, no-nonsense form of football, better described as a game with no rules. Given the language of some Brexiteers who see the UK as a fierce competitor to the EU, freed from the shackles of Brussels, maybe the analogy is not so far-fetched. The Parliament’s resolution gives full support to the draft negotiating mandate sought by the Commission, and Guy Verhofstadt left no doubt that the talks will be tough:“the UK government says no to EU standards, a far-reaching fishery agreement and free movement, but it does want zero tariffs, zero quota and full access for the City. If this is the UK position, talks will be very brief indeed”.

No plenary session can go by without some mention of the Green Deal, and the vote on a list of gas and electricity infrastructure projects provided the latest test of whether the Commission’s actions matched its ambitions. The Greens argued the list still had too many gas projects and the funds should be going to renewables. The EPP backed the Commission, stressing that gas was a key part of the energy transition and these pipelines would one day be transporting green and renewable gases too. The most significant intervention came from Environment Committee Chairman, Pascal Canfin, a former Green MEP himself, who latched onto the assurances from Frans Timmermans that no gas project would be funded that was incompatible with the Green Deal. MEPs also used Christine Lagarde’s first speech in Strasbourg to urge the ECB to put climate change at the heart of its review of monetary policy strategy and build on her commitment to gradually eliminate carbon assets.

The much-prized unity of the EU 27 during the Brexit talks is increasingly under strain as the talks over the long-term budget push member states into competing camps. No sign of the MFF leading to BFF. The Parliament in comparison looks a model of harmony as leaders of all major groups warned EU leaders not to underestimate their role and that no consent would come without new own resources introduced on day one plus an end to all rebates. This one could run and run.

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