Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
There’s a scene in the romantic comedy Love Actually where the bumbling British Prime Minister, played by Hugh Grant, stands up to the demands of the bullying American president, to the cheers and surprise of the assembled press. How Josep Borrell must wish he could turn back the clock on that ill-judged Moscow trip and disastrous press conference. However, the Commission is sadly less rom-com and more reality TV show – the type where a contestant is voted out each week. MEPs were certainly queuing up to demand his resignation for inflicting humiliation on the EU, with one Flemish nationalist even asking if he had the “cojones” for the job. The general view was that Lavrov had outplayed him, even getting him to back the yet-to-be authorised Sputnik V vaccine. Maybe Europe needs to re-name its vaccines with stirring patriotic titles too. A jab of Spitfire anyone?
Borrell’s blunders at least drew some of the attention away from his beleaguered president. Von der Leyen was next up in the dock, accused of messing up Europe’s vaccine supplies and inflaming Northern Irish sensitivities by triggering Article 16 of the Protocol to place export controls on vaccines. For all those aficionados of Article 50, you have a new article to get your teeth into. To her credit, Von der Leyen acknowledged the EU had been late to authorise the vaccines, too optimistic on the scale of production and too confident it would actually get what it ordered. Her backers in the EPP turned their ire on Astra Zeneca and the Brits. Vaccine nationalism and Brexit are a toxic combination but EPP leader Manfred Weber couldn’t help himself. “If the United Kingdom is not willing to deliver doses to Europe, then why should we deliver doses to the United Kingdom?
His answer to the crisis, in time-honoured EU fashion, was to throw money at the problem. The EPP put forward a €10 billion proposal to increase production and set up a Europe-wide pharmaceutical alliance, with as many production sites as possible switching to make vaccines. The Socialists were also keen to remain upbeat on the Commission’s coordinating role, warning of how much worse things could have been if member states had fought among themselves over scarce supplies. Socialist leader Iraxte Garcia said “enough with the prophets of doom”, sounding rather like an upbeat Boris Johnson dispelling the “doomsters and the gloomsters”.
Parliament’s political leaders have endorsed a vote on the EU/UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement for the end of February, which begs the question why the Commission put in a request for a 2-month technical extension. Parliament’s consent is not in doubt and its main aim now is to win for itself additional scrutiny powers and the ability to push the Commission into re-balancing measures whenever they feel the UK steps out of line. The initial problems traders have experienced with customs and paperwork have been put down to “teething problems”. Michael Gove, the UK’s main interlocuter with the EU, found a more colourful way of putting it in context. “We all know that when an aeroplane takes off, that is the point where you sometimes get an increased level of turbulence. But eventually, you then reach a cruising altitude and the crew tell you to take your seatbelt off and enjoy a gin and tonic and some peanuts. We are not at the gin and tonic and peanut stage yet, but I am confident we will be”. No oysters or fruits de mer with those peanuts though, as the Commission has already slapped an indefinite ban on UK exports.
The week ended with a ceremonial signing of the €672.5 billion Recovery and Resilience Facility and the hope that funds could start flowing before the summer. That all depends on the final piece in the jigsaw, the ratification by each member state of the Own Resources Decision, and only five countries have completed the process. The Commission is planning on adopting the first national recovery plans by the end of April.