Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
Everyone seemed to be on best behaviour as the Slovenian presidency rolled into town. After last week’s heated exchanges between the college of Commissioners and Prime Minister Janesz Jansa over alleged double standards on the rule of law and his claims that the Slovenian judiciary was too cosy with his opponents, both sides looked to turn down the heat. It must have been some spat in Ljubljana for Frans Timmermans to boycott the team photo, never one to be publicity-shy.
Centre-left MEPs however were not going to let Jansa off so lightly and Dutch Liberal Malik Azmani accused him of wanting to be “part of a fairly sinister club that doesn’t appreciate free media, that can’t stomach the independence of the judiciary or respecting LGBTQI rights at all”. The EPP skirted around these concerns, with Jansa’s SDS party a member of the EPP, but his support for Viktor Orban (and Donald Trump!) has many wondering whether he really belongs. When pressed in the debate on whether he supported the recent declaration by 16 eurosceptic right-wing parties, including Orban’s Fidesz, Le Pen’s RN and Salvini’s Lega, Jansa replied that the European political arena was dynamic and that all voices deserved to be listened to. He would use the Bled Strategic Forum at the end of August as a platform to allow mainly central and eastern European policy makers to set out their vision for the future, which is likely to be in direct contrast to the parallel work in the Conference on the Future of Europe. The Slovenian presidency is still on course to be a roller-coaster ride.
The future of Jansa’s SDS party is probably a headache the EPP could do without, coming so soon after the bruising internal discussion over Fidesz. The group announced this week it was welcoming in two Italian MEPs who had left Lega, the latest examples of the fluidity on the Italian right as members move freely between ECR, ID and EPP. It also comes at a time of leadership change within the EPP, as party leader Donald Tusk moves back to domestic politics and Group leader Manfred Weber is in pole position to take over as EP President in January. The new leaders will be faced with challenges over the direction the group takes in light of the growing threat from the far-right.
July saw the official launch of the EU Covid Certificates, with several MEPs keen to stress how it had eased their travel to Strasbourg. Commissioner Reynders announced that 200 million certificates had now been issued EU-wide and talks were underway with Switzerland, the UK and the US to connect their systems. MEPs were still unhappy that there was no real common approach, with Dutch MEP Sophie in t’Veld bemoaning “we’re dealing with a kind of spaghetti of national rules and people are clueless”. Cost of tests remained another source of irritation, despite €100 million in EU funds being made available to help bear the burden.
The week ended with the rule of law debate again dominating the political agenda. MEPs are furious with the Commission for not applying the rule of law conditionality regulation that is supposed to protect EU funds against possible misuse by member state governments, and have threatened legal action if nothing is done in the next two weeks. There was however support for the Commission’s refusal to endorse Hungary’s request for €7.2 billion under the recovery fund due to concerns over corruption and judicial independence. While Orban may echo Jansa in claiming double standards and interference in domestic affairs, if he wants that much cash from European taxpayers he will need the agreement of both Commission and Council, with a long line of MEPs happy to keep the pressure on.