Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
As tourists slowly return to Europe’s beaches, lured by the promise of quarantine-free entry, EU policymakers are busy playing catch-up. The vaccination certificate, aimed at opening up travel Europe-wide, has become the latest power struggle between MEPs and Ministers, who spent much of the week haggling over how the certificate would work. MEPs had pushed for free testing to save families the huge cost of paying anything up to €200 for a PCR test. That’s the going rate for the Finns, who may be staying in their saunas this summer. Ministers however remained unmoved and reluctant to give any ground to MEPs on issues of border management where they have no formal role. Threats to simply by-pass the Parliament and push ahead with a non-biding Council recommendation led one MEP to say it was like negotiating with a gun on the table. An additional €100m was finally found to help pay for tests and the certificates should start to be used from 1 July.
A parallel move to open up to travel from third countries such as the UK and US progressed without the need for any consent from Parliament. Given the continued frosty nature of EU/UK relations that may be no bad thing, as MEPs could well have been tempted to trigger the two caveats to allowing free travel: one allowing for an emergency brake in the case of new variants – such as the Indian one causing concern in the UK – and the other calling for reciprocity; the UK still has most of Europe on its amber list, requiring quarantine on arrival. While the gun-boats may have moved on from the Jersey fishing confrontation, there are still endless irritants hampering the normalisation of relations. The Socialist group leader saw fit to write to the Commission president complaining of the “entirely disproportionate and even vindictive” British treatment of EU citizens detained sometimes for days at the border for having “ticked the wrong box”.
Having taken on the Council and lost, Parliament decided to pick a fight with the Commission over assessment of the national recovery plans. EPP leader Manfred Weber argued this was not just a bureaucratic exercise but needed political oversight from Parliament to check the plans were going in the right direction. Commissioner Gentiloni was having none of it, and while he diplomatically thanked the MEPs for their “engagement”, he stressed that there was no provision for a preliminary assessment from them.
Next in the MEPs’ firing line were China and Turkey. A strongly-worded resolution called for the EU’s investment agreement with China to be formally frozen on the grounds of Beijing’s “baseless and arbitrary” sanctions against certain MEPs, who by all accounts are revelling in their new-found pariah status. The report on Turkey also pulled no punches, with MEPs claiming relations were at an historic low and needed to be fundamentally re-assessed. The report sets out a long list of problem issues, mostly resulting from a “hyper-centralisation of power in the presidency”. If this negative trend continues then accession negotiations should be formally suspended and any upgrade in the EU-Turkey Customs Union put in doubt. Neighbourhood Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi was more conciliatory and stressed the strategic interest in developing good relations, but acknowledged it would be hard to modernise the customs deal when Ankara still did not apply it to Cyprus.
On a more positive note, Parliament gave its backing to the €17.5bn Just Transition Fund, singling out an unholy alliance of sectors that would not receive any support – nuclear, fossil fuels, waste incineration and tobacco. Access to the JTF is also conditional on member states adopting national-level commitments to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, a reminder to Poland to get a move on if it wants to benefit.
The winstubs of Strasbourg are due to welcome back MEPs in person for the June plenary. While returning Members will be too late for the traditional May session asparagus festival, the French authorities are keen to demonstrate their largesse and have promised to make vaccines available for EP staff. Shots in the Swan bar will take on a whole new meaning. Still no news on when lobbyists, hangers-on or the great unwashed will be allowed back into the premises, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.