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Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Cher Grégoire,

The week kicked off with a star-studded celebration of International Women’s Day, with US VP Kamala Harris and New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern beamed into the near-empty hemicycle to deliver messages of hope and inspiration. At least Ursula von der Leyen was there in the flesh, but she doesn’t quite pack the same celebrity punch. Parliament honoured the occasion by doing what it does best – naming two of its more obscure Brussels buildings after prominent European women, Clara Campoamor and Sophie Scholl. Let’s hope they don’t suffer the same fate as Italian federalist Altiero Spinelli, whose main parliament building has been renamed after the Greek resistance fighter Manolis Glezos. We’re all going to get completely lost when we’re finally allowed back in.

MEPs’ commitment to gender equality was called into question when the draft list of political group nominees to the Executive Board of the Conference on the Future of Europe was found to contain six men and just one woman. President Sassoli urged them to reconsider but good luck with trying to get Guy Verhofstadt off the list following his very public rejection as sole president. Socialist leader Iraxte Garcia is currently the only woman, and the EPP have opted for their leader, Manfred Weber. The top-heavy institutional structure of the Conference does not bode well for a citizen-driven exercise, and quite what it will achieve in just one year is hard to predict. Many fear it will be another Brussels navel-gazing exercise, or as one commentator put it “an orgy of introspection”. Conclusions are due to be drawn in spring 2022 under the French presidency, with claims that President Macron sees this as part of his re-election campaign. He of all people should know the risk that citizens’ conventions can come back to bite you if their recommendations are not taken up in full.

Viktor Orban’s very public divorce from the EPP has led to a flurry of intrigue at possible re-alignment on the right of the House. The ECR group is in pole position to pick up his 13 MEPs and they also have their sights on the Slovenian Democratic party of PM Janez Jansa, the latest EPP bad boy. Rumours of the Italian Lega jumping ship and creating a new force on the right are probably premature given the leading role that Fratelli d’Italia play in the ECR group. But swapping 27 Lega MEPs for 7 Fratelli may seem worth the price and the latter have upset the Poles with their pro-Russian statements. Some even whisper of Lega filling a post-Berlusconi void on the Italian right and joining the EPP, but that’s probably one for the future. All this chatter has caused jitters in Renew Europe, who remain divided between former ALDE members and the newcomers from France and Romania. Dark mutterings continue over Dacian Ciolos’ leadership, with many feeling he was better suited to being a commissioner than a political group leader. The prospect of changes to the groups will only increase as we approach the January mid-term point where group size could have a bearing on changes to committee chairs and who will succeed Sassoli as president.

No Postcard would be complete without some mention of the continuing rancour in UK/EU relations, with a double whammy of UK outrage at accusations of vaccine export controls, coupled with EU threats of legal action over the UK’s unilateral extension of grace periods for Irish Sea border checks. MEPs have little influence over this rapidly deteriorating relationship and the decision to once again delay ratification of the trade deal will be met with bemusement from the UK side. Remarks from EPP health spokesman Peter Liese will not have helped. He argued that the EU should have introduced export controls much earlier in order to stop vaccine exports from the EU to the UK.

Vaccine nationalism will soon be put to the test as EU officials and MEPs start lining up for their in-house jabs from 22 March. If only there was a Louis Pasteur building. While the EU authorities insist that they will remain in line with Belgian rules on priority groups, expect some undiplomatic queue jumping to take place.

Stay safe,
Richard