Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
COVID has played havoc with the Brexit negotiations but the stars may finally be aligning to herald a deal. Can it be pure coincidence that both Boris Johnson and Michel Barnier emerge rejuvenated this week from quarantine just as the talks reach that stage where personal intervention from the top is needed to get a deal over the line? Ursula von der Leyen promised MEPs that the EU would show creativity in trying to get a deal, something the UK has accused the Europeans of singularly lacking. Barnier on the other hand warned that there wasn’t much point in him jumping back on the Eurostar if the Brits weren’t prepared to budge. A strong governance system remains one of the key sticking points and von der Leyen didn’t hide concerns that the Brits might renege on any deal as they had done with the Withdrawal Agreement. “We want to know what remedies are available in case one side will deviate in the future. Because trust is good, but law is better”. Parliament indicated it would do its bit to steer through any last minute deal, even if it meant interrupting their Christmas turkey and voting over the holiday period.
Parliament has proved remarkably adept at adjusting to the new normal of remote plenary sittings and a Christmas Brexit vote could take place from the comfort of Member’s homes, or as is increasingly the case, from the Parliament’s own liaison offices in national capitals. At the last plenary, one in two Members chose to speak from their liaison office and arguments will no doubt grow post-crisis as to whether all MEPs actually need to be physically present. Remote voting looks set to continue until at least March, which begs the question what happens to Strasbourg? Right on cue, France’s EU Minister Clément Beaune, stirred the pot by condemning plans to renovate the Brussels hemicycle, while promoting buying up more property in Strasbourg.
The most hyped debate of the week was not on the plenary agenda but the one-hour call between Greta Thunberg and Frans Timmermans on how to bring the CAP back in line with the Green Deal. One can only hope it was the real Greta and not the Russian pranksters who had fooled Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau into thinking he was talking to the young climate activist. Timmermans had already courted controversy, not least among MEPs and his own boss, by suggesting that the Commission could withdraw the CAP proposal if a final deal by legislators failed to match Green Deal ambitions. The Greens have backed him to see through his threat and a very public campaign from Greta and the youth movement could suddenly make the nuclear option a real possibility.
The leaders of all three EU institutions couldn’t hide their delight at Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump and seemed to be falling over each other in their haste to invite him to visit their institution first. They all welcomed the chance to re-set the trans-Atlantic relationship after years of tip-toeing around Trump and his tweets, and von der Leyen spoke loftily of the EU and US shaping the global agenda. However, no one is expecting a sudden rush to TTIP2 and a EU/US trade deal will not figure high on Biden’s agenda. The two sides are also still embroiled in tariff disputes that will take more than an improvement in tone to resolve. MEPs signalled this week what they expect to see in next year’s trade policy review, looking for much tougher sustainability chapters in future agreements, including sanctions. One interesting suggestion to emerge from the report was for the Commission to set up a dedicated China Task Force along the lines of the Brexit one.
The Conference on the Future of Europe has fallen off most people’s radar but MEPs are still holding out hope it will see the light of day. A report on lessons learnt from the 2019 election looked to the Conference to deliver on pet subjects such as transnational lists, remote voting and direct voting for the Commission President. Still no word on who will chair the Conference, but the bookies’ favourite is former Danish Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt.