Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
CAP reform has been decades in the making so it was perfectly in keeping that it took an all-night meeting of Agriculture Ministers and a 4-day voting marathon by MEPs for final negotiating positions to be adopted. Parliament’s vote, lasting from Tuesday to Friday, was already steeped in accusations that a murky compromise reached between the three big groups was going to kill off any hope of greening the CAP and protecting biodiversity. A group of leading Socialists tried to distance themselves from the deal and the stakes were raised higher when Greta Thunberg saw fit to intervene and dismissed it as a Green Deal sell-out. Green NGOs also weighed in with their own doomsday predictions, with one activist saying that MEPs had delivered “the kiss of death to nature without batting an eye”. They were hardly appeased when the German EPP rapporteur Peter Jahr said “it’s always easier to whinge than to help”.
There was plenty of whinging and rolling of eyes as plenary took stock of the latest episode in the long-running Brexit soap. Michel Barnier was cool and conciliatory as ever and managed to utter the right soothing words to get British negotiators back to the table. He agreed that compromise would be needed from both sides and the EU was ready to “intensify” the talks – the key word missing from the EU leaders’ conclusions that had triggered Boris Johnson’s walk-out. It was left to Charles Michel, President of the European Council, to add some spice to the debate. His predecessor, Donald Tusk, had famously annoyed Theresa May by tweeting a photo of a cake with a cherry on top, encapsulating two of the key phrases in the Brexit lexicon about cherry-picking and having your cake and eating it. Michel returned to the cake theme with the gastronomic French equivalent « On ne peut pas avoir le beurre, l’argent du beurre, et le sourire de la cremiere. » That should get the British negotiators rushing for their phrase books. Has dairy suddenly become the new sticking point?
Michel was again in action trying to cajole MEPs not to try and re-open the budget debate and, rather than focus on perceived cuts in areas like Research and Health, to look at the bigger picture. The EU, he argued, has never had so much money at its disposal and the sub-text was that now was the time to get on with spending it rather than wrangling over the small print. MEPs remain unconvinced and this saga has a few more rounds to go before we reach a deal.
The week saw the usual game of musical chairs as replacements were sought for departing MEPs. Roberta Metsola from Malta will replace Mairead McGuinness as EP Vice-President, seeing off the challenge of Sean Kelly, an Irish legend in Gaelic sports. The Socialist will also need to find a new Vice-President in charge of the Green Deal as another Malteser, Miriam Dalli, heads back to domestic politics.
This was of course a remote plenary, hovering somewhere between Brussels and Strasbourg, with Parliament also employing all its offices in national capitals. President Sassoli praised the way the multilingual body had been able to adjust, not least with remote voting, and hailing its role as the gold standard being copied around the world. He stopped short of saying this would be the norm for some time but a quick return to Strasbourg still looks unlikely.