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Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Cher Grégoire,

The fifth anniversary of the Paris climate agreement on 12 December will be celebrated by a global on-line event bringing together governments, business and civil society in a bid to rally momentum behind more ambitious national climate plans. The event, co-hosted by the UN and the UK, has been dubbed “the sprint to Glasgow” in recognition of the major climate conference due to have taken place in the Scottish city next month but now postponed to November 2021. Twelve months sounds more of a rather long jog than a sprint, but the December 12 date has become a target for EU leaders to show their mettle and agree on an ambitious emissions reduction target for 2030. Ambition is of course a tricky beast to define. For MEPs this week it meant a progressive majority behind a 60% target and the long term ambition of negative emissions after 2050. For the Member States the very fact that they are seriously considering a 55% target would have been unthinkable a year or two ago. When talks do finally get underway between MEPs and ministers, the final figure is likely to be much closer to the 55% mark than 60%. It remains to be seen whether this is “fudged” with so-called accounting tricks by including carbon dioxide removal from forests and land use, or the use of carbon credits from projects in developing countries.

Just as MEPs were getting tough on strict rule of law conditionality in the next EU budget they have managed to descend once again into partisan bickering over support for their political allies. Leaders of all the major parties had made a joint statement that Parliament would not give its consent to the recovery fund or long-term budget unless rules were in place to stop EU funds going to governments that didn’t adhere to European values. This principled stand began to fray at the edges as MEPs debated the anti-government protests in Bulgaria directed at the EPP’s centre-right ally, Boyko Borisov. While EPP group leader Manfred Weber conceded that “not everything is perfect” in Boyko’s Bulgaria, he accused the Socialists of having turned a blind eye to nefarious goings-on in Malta, Slovakia and Romania. This collective mud-slinging is hardly likely to help their case as budget talks with Council grind on with no prospect of a quick solution that will rapidly release recovery funds.

Political harmony was momentarily restored for the confirmation of Mairead McGuinness as new Commissioner for Financial Services and Valdis Dombrovskis in charge of trade. The former European Parliament First Vice-president received an impressive 583 votes in favour, illustrating her support across the House; something that von der Leyen would be wise to capitalise on. MEPs also gave Dombrovskis something to chew on during his first week in his new role as they symbolically rejected the Mercosur agreement. An amendment pushed through by some of Macron’s MEPs explicitly mentioned Bolsonaro’s deforestation policy. Parliament has still to be asked for its official consent but the mood in the House is all too clear.

While Brexit talks remain in suspended animation, Parliament was at least able to adopt one concrete proposal to ease travel through the Channel Tunnel by maintaining the same set of rules. We now just need quarantine restrictions to be lifted so that we can actually use the tunnel. Restrictions have of course also been tightened in Brussels and only the most radical conspiracy theorist could link the closure of Brussels bars with the sudden decision to return to Strasbourg for the next session starting in just ten days’ time.

Keep safe,

Richard

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