Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
President Joseph Robinette Biden’s inauguration address had many memorable quotes but one that will have resonated well in the near-empty Brussels hemicycle was that “politics don’t have to be a raging fire”. His plea for unity could have come straight out of the EU handbook and the sense of relief among MEPs with the return to normality and civility was almost palpable. Maybe in time we’ll miss the drama of the Trump twitterstorm, and EPP leader Manfred Weber observed wryly that “it is a sad fact that compromise is boring on social media, and the extreme positions and provocations are attractive. They are retweeted. This is the reality and it has deeply affected our lives as politicians”. Expect some of those sentiments to be repeated if the CEOs of Facebook, Google Amazon and Apple accept MEPs invitation to a high-level digital hearing to protect citizens from on-line harm.
The plenary debate however was not an occasion to dwell on the past but look expectantly to the future of trans-Atlantic relations and make the most of this window of opportunity. MEPs lapped up Biden’s message that “we will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again. Not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s challenges”. None more so than climate action, where Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged that US engagement in the Paris accord would also mean Europe faced competition in the race to zero. “I like competition”, she added” and good competition is positive competition when it comes to the green economy … it’s also a further reason for Europe to speed up its efforts to get moving and to keep their first mover advantage”.
Climate action also provides the most constructive area for future EU/UK dialogue, with Boris Johnson hosting both the G7 meeting in Cornwall in June as well as the UN global conference in Glasgow in November. How he would dearly love to bag a Biden visit to both. But maybe he should pay more heed to Biden’s call to repair alliances as the Brexit fall-out is increasingly felt. Manfred Weber (again) was indignant that so much fuss should be made over a British lorry driver having his ham sandwich confiscated while the EU seemed impotent in stopping the spread of the “English variant” of the virus. There is also growing anger among MEPs at the perceived diplomatic snub that the UK will not grant full diplomatic status to the EU Ambassador in London, Barosso’s former chef de cabinet, Joao Vale de Almeida. Even Donald Trump reversed his decision to downgrade the EU Mission in Washington D.C. This comes on top of antipathy in Westminster to establishing a parliamentary delegation bringing together MEPs and MPs to foster good relations. Brexit may be over but its after-effects look set to linger for some time.
The COVID crisis has been a constant source of pressure on the EU’s own unity and solidarity and this week’s debate revealed once again the dangers of “health nationalism” and the risk of individual member states undermining the common European approach. Members were keen to feed their views into the EU leaders’ meeting on Thursday evening and, in order to keep supply chains moving, called for a standardised testing regime for crossing borders. The issue of vaccination certificates looks like the next big issue, but with strong views held on both sides of the debate.
The week started with condemnation from President Sassoli of the arrest of Alexei Navalny and ended with a resolution supporting tougher sanctions against Russia. These included a call to stop the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, which is also under attack from across the Atlantic. Most German MEPs opposed the move, as did EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell who reminded MEPs that “we cannot prevent the companies from building it, if the German government agrees with that”.
Finally, all is not lost with regard to the Conference on the Future of Europe. Antonio Costa, the Portuguese Prime Minister, used his visit to Brussels to try and get things moving again, not least on who will preside. No doubt they would love to find someone of the stature of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former president of the European Convention, and himself an MEP between 1989 to 2003. A special homage will be paid to him in the Strasbourg hemicycle on 2 February in the presence of President Macron and other Heads of state and government.