Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
“Chers collègues, je vous souhaite la bienvenue à Strasbourg …après plus de 15 mois, nous sommes de retour à notre siège”. And so President Sassoli welcomed Members back to the first session in situ since February 2020, with the city’s mayor, Jeanne Barseghian beaming from the gallery at the return of the city’s cash cow. Not that the hotels, restaurants or taxi drivers were leaping with joy, with half of MEPs staying away and nowhere near enough staff, assistants or accompanying media/lobby circus members present to provide the buzz that makes Strasbourg week unique. Added to that was a 9 pm curfew, meaning any late-night drinking at Les Aviateurs was strictly off the agenda. Much of the action took place online, with personal contact kept to a minimum. But in the words of President Macron’s Europe Minister, Clément Beaune, “we had to do it. What Strasbourg now needed was proof of love”.
There was little sign of friendship, let alone love, as the first EU/UK Partnership Council took place. Trust is an increasingly rare commodity and Maros Sefcovic didn’t mince his words when he said that the EU’s patience was “wearing very, very thin” and that there would be repercussions if the UK went ahead with another unilateral extension to a grace period, this time on chilled meats. Cue the British tabloids screeching “Euro chiefs wave their chipolatas in our faces”, positively salivating at the prospect of a sausage trade war. It is not quite clear why Northern Ireland should rely on imports of British sausages, when anyone who has eaten the artery-busting Ulster fry knows they make a decent sausage themselves. This will no doubt top the agenda of the Parliament’s revamped Brexit unit, now called the UK Contact Group, but still under the leadership of David McAllister, Trade Committee chair Bernd Lange and the still-to-be-appointed chair of the new EU/UK Delegation.
Vaccines remained a hot topic throughout the week and the Socialists and Greens managed to engineer a majority behind a vote calling for a COVID vaccine patent waiver. Parliament also got behind the drive to massively increase supply of vaccines to the poorest countries and, with an eye on the discussions at the G7 summit in Cornwall, called on the UK and the US to immediately abolish their export bans on vaccines and raw materials. That could trigger a few more intemperate tabloid headlines.
President Biden’s visit to Europe and the much-anticipated EU/US summit next week were the focus of much attention. Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis has clearly been watching too many motivational videos: telling MEPs that “it’s now for the US to walk the talk” on resolving trade disputes sounded rather forced coming from the mild-mannered Latvian. The Socialists used the debate to focus on what they called “the elephant in the room” at the EU/US summit, namely China. Bernd Lange argued that the EU needed to work with China on climate issues, but equally act jointly with the US in tackling trade distorting practices. “Whether we will be able to agree on a joint strategic approach towards China will be one of the key questions defining our transatlantic relationship”.
The first payments under the Recovery Plan could start within weeks according to Ursula von der Leyen and she couldn’t disguise her delight that within 12 months they had gone from summit agreement to first disbursements. She informed the House that next week she would start approving some national plans for Council to approve within a month. Portugal, likely to be one of the first recipients, wants to go faster and see the money flowing by the end of June. MEPs have been thwarted in their push for a greater say in ensuring the green credentials of the plans but have found another weapon in the form of a threat of a court case against the Commission if it fails to act on the rule of law mechanism.