Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
There was no tearful singing of Auld Lang Syne this time as MEPs voted on the final act of the Brexit melodrama. While the deal can now formally come into force, the consequences are still being played out and a complex governance structure aimed at overseeing implementation must now be put in place. Trust on both sides is still in short supply and Ursula von der Leyen was quick to point out the agreement comes with real teeth that they wouldn’t hesitate to use. She also offered MEPs unprecedented powers in policing the deal, which they will feel honour bound to push to the limits. You can already see MEPs flagging up any deviation from the UK’s part on issues like GMOs or labour standards as a reason to invoke rebalancing measures. Their British counterparts in the House of Commons can only dream of this sort of leverage on their government and have already moaned that they’ll get more details from the Commission than HMG. There was time for one last hurrah for Michel Barnier, given a standing ovation by the handful of members present in the chamber. His presidential ambitions in France remain unclear but his standing in EU circles is without doubt.
Another Michel, Charles, would love this sort of adulation but he had to endure a blistering barrage from von der Leyen as she let rip over the Turkish “sofagate” fiasco. He must have been squirming in his seat as she told sympathetic MEPs that she felt “hurt and alone, as a woman and as a European”. While Ursula has endured her own criticism over the vaccine strategy, she is reasonably secure in her job. Charles Michel, on the other hand, has to be re-appointed President of the European Council by the end of the year and he’ll need to watch his step.
Another top post up for grabs next January will be President of the European Parliament as we already approach the mid-way point of this mandate. President Sassoli has set in action five focus groups to reflect on lessons learned from the crisis and provide food for thought to his successor, still likely to be EPP leader Manfred Weber. One will deal with the perennial dilemma of how to make plenary interesting and relevant. Banning speed reading from a prepared script would be a good start to foster more dynamic debates. A second group will look at another long-term problem of how to better communicate their work to voters. Another group will look at what aspects of the remote meetings and voting they should retain when “normality” returns. Do we really need to fly hundreds of people around Europe for every meeting? The final groups will look at how to advance their powers of scrutiny and oversight and their role in external diplomacy. Recommendations are due by the summer.
Saving summer is the leitmotif behind the drive to have a COVID certificate in place to allow us all, overworked MEPs included, the chance of a summer holiday abroad. The Parliament however has set itself on a collision course with Council by banning any additional national restrictions such as quarantine. Dutch Liberal Sophie in t’Veld asked “what’s the point in having a common European scheme if then member states can, whenever they feel like it, ignore the certificate and impose additional restrictions?” MEPs also want to keep the Russian Sputnik off the certificate, and in a real crowd-pleaser, they call for COVID tests to be free. Having just spent over €400 on a series of tests to visit the UK, I can only applaud this public-spirited gesture. Why a travel test should costs twice as much in the UK as Belgium remains a mystery.
Members look forward to scrutinising the 27 national recovery plans to check there has been no slippage on green deal commitments or respect of rule of law principles. Plenary approved two big budget programmes that will further this work. The Horizon Europe research and innovation programme aims to prepare Europe’s health systems for future pandemics and its industry to decarbonise, digitalise and innovate. An overall budget of €95.5 billion has been agreed, Approval was also given to the most ambitious EU climate and environmental programme ever, with €5.4bn invested in LIFE.
The week ended with a strongly worded statement from political Group leaders that the voice of national parliaments must play an equal role to EU bodies in the final conclusions of the Conference on the Future of Europe. This echoes a call from the German and French parliaments that the Conference plenary makes the final decisions – “Only in this way can the conference results be given the legitimacy needed for appropriate follow-up action by the EU institutions within the framework of their Treaty competences”. EP leaders also hold out the possibility of extending the life of the Conference, with the conclusions presented in spring 2022 under the French presidency only “preliminary”.