Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
A surreal year ended with a surreal moment as President Sassoli pandered to French pressure and opened the session live from Strasbourg. Only a handful of die-hard Members were there to witness the show and Sassoli then raced back to Brussels where the real action was taking place. With Parliament giving its seal of approval to the deal on the future budget, Sassoli heralded the “European Marshall Plan” as “a historic budget for a historic moment”. MEPs also approved a new mechanism linking EU funding to rule of law criteria and a cross-party resolution politely reminded EU leaders that it was they and Council who made laws, not the European Council with its political declarations. Ursula von der Leyen reassured the house that the law that they had approved would be operational from 1 January and not delayed by court cases.
With the MFF, Recovery Plan, Rule of Law, Own Resources and 2030 climate target all neatly ticked off, all that was needed was a Brexit agreement to round off a perfect end of year. The negotiations have long resembled Groundhog Day and Michel Barnier and his team must wake up every morning fearing they are living the same day over and over again. MEPs are beginning to lose their patience and have set Sunday as the final deadline if they are to ratify before the end of the year. Von der Leyen told Members that a narrow path to an agreement had opened up and that progress had been made on state aid and standards, but that fish still remained a problem. Adding a new metaphor to the Brexit lexicon she said “we must all walk these last miles in the same shoes”, which begs the question: brown English brogues or red-soled Christian Louboutins?
Luckily for the EPP there was no Group Christmas party this year and so no awkward dilemma of where to seat the Hungarian delegation. Fidesz have already suffered the embarrassment of losing one head of delegation, Jozsef Szajer, who formed a rather larger social bubble or “knuffelcontact” than the rules permitted. They were in danger of losing his successor, Tamas Deuthsch, who was threatened with expulsion after comparing remarks made by his German leader, Manfred Weber, with slogans used by the Gestapo. After much soul-searching in the Group, he was let off with a mild rebuke and deprived of future plenary speaking time. That will teach him a lesson. A wider decision on whether to expel the whole delegation was kicked into the long grass once again, or “until health conditions” allow, according to the motion adopted. Polish MEP Roza Thun tweeted that Orban had probably opened another bottle of champagne.
This year’s Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought went to the Belarussian opposition and contained the unusual offer of office space inside the Parliament from which to base a government in exile. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya politely declined the offer saying their fight was inside Belarus. She did add that “without a free Belarus, Europe is not fully free either”.
Agreement on a mandatory Transparency Register to check who is lobbying who was welcomed by the negotiators from the three institutions but less so by the transparency lobby. While the top levels of the Council secretariat are included for the first time, permanent representations are left to decide for themselves, except for the country holding the Presidency. Critics want to see more light shone on meetings with lower ranked officials in all three institutions, including MEP staff and assistants, who make up the bulk of most lobby meetings. A growing number of MEPs are now listing their meetings on their websites, which can make for fascinating reading. ENVI Chairman Pascal Canfin, for example, met with Renault, Michelin and Volvo earlier this year on the Green Recovery.
The hemicycle once again resounded to the Ode to Joy as the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth was marked by Presidents Sassoli, von der Leyen and Michel. Sassoli quoted the great composer as saying that there is nothing more wonderful than giving happiness to people. A worthy sentiment to conclude a difficult year and to prepare for Christmas.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,