Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
A favourite device of the modern speechwriter is to pepper their speeches with quotes from inspirational leaders in the hope that some of their kudos will rub off. The State of the Union (SOTEU) was no exception, with Ursula von der Leyen kicking off her 80 minute discourse praising the courage of the frontline workers by referring to Andrei Sakharov’s “unshakable belief in the hidden strength of the human spirit”. She ended her speech by quoting the much-admired Northern Irish peacemaker and MEP, John Hume, who died this year, and who used to say that conflict was about difference and that peace was about respect for difference. In 1998 he reminded the House: “The European visionaries decided that difference is not a threat, difference is natural. Difference is the essence of humanity”. This nicely led into her big new initiative on anti-racism and in true Brussels fashion, the creation of a new post, the first-ever anti-racism coordinator. However, the prize for top quote of the day goes to the researcher who managed to dig out the 1975 speech from Margaret Thatcher stating in bold terms that “Britain doesn’t break treaties”. Having Thatcher quoted back at you, and by a German no less, must be every Sun reader’s worst nightmare – not that Britain’s best-selling tabloid would report on the SOTEU.
Von der Leyen is a far better orator than her often-rambling predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, and she knows how to keep the political groups her presidency depends upon happy. Her commitment to gender equality, anti-racism, youth, majority voting on human rights and sanctions are all quick wins and she won generous applause for her conviction that LGBTQI-free zones in Poland are humanity free zones and have no place in our Union. Members were also delighted by her encouragement to take the fight to the Council over restoring the health budget and for putting increased health competences at the top of the agenda for the Conference on the Future of Europe. Still no word on when the Conference will start, who will lead it or whether its recommendations will lead to Treaty changes. The Council’s position adopted back in June called for an “eminent European personality” to be the “independent and single chair”. I somehow get the feeling they don’t mean the EP’s candidate, Guy Verhofstadt.
The next plenary is in just over two weeks’ time and it’s hard to imagine that Strasbourg will have emerged from the red zone to allow Members to return. The political pressure from France will no doubt ramp up and the French Europe Minister, Clement Beaune, made a point of being in Strasbourg on Monday to defend the city’s safety measures. He was flanked by a handful of local politicians and one of Macron’s new MEPs, Christophe Grudler, who refused to come to Brussels and followed the session all alone from his Strasbourg office. The Minister talked about possible “compensation” for the hit taken by the city’s hotels and restaurants and it’s likely that some of the Future of Europe conference will take place in the city.
The second October plenary session starting on 19 October will include the confirmation of the new Irish Commissioner, Mairead McGuinness. Her hearing in front of the Economic Affairs Committee and Dombrovskis’ grilling on trade are due the week before and unlikely to throw up any nasty surprises. Dombrovskis may lack the Irish charm of Big Phil but he’s a safe pair of hands when EU trade policy risks being dominated by building additional defence measures against difficult partners in China, the US and the UK.