Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
Tuesday was Day 29 of the interpreters’ strike and the Parliament was somehow still functioning. Their go-slow tactics seemed to be having no effect so a band of militant MEPs showed them how you really do a protest.
José Bové, he of the droopy moustache and campaign against the “malbouffe” of McDonalds, launched a dawn raid on the technician’s booth and literally pulled the plug on the plenary debate on the Bulgarian presidency. Proceedings were held up by over 30 minutes as the rebel MEPs took selfies crammed into the booth, leaving Jean-Claude Juncker muttering this was not the way to behave and they’d never have dared do it to Macron or Merkel.
Angela Merkel’s domestic issues with her CSU partners bubbled beneath the surface of several plenary debates and at times it felt like watching a struggle for the very soul of the EPP group. Does it veer to the right in line with the axis around Bavaria, Austria, Hungary and Italy or does it remain anchored to the traditional Christian Democrat centre? Sebastian Kurz, the darling of the new right, or the “baby-faced Orban” according to the far-left, made clear where he stood, putting security and the fight against illegal migration at the heart of the Austrian presidency. Seeing the bright-eyed 31 year-old Chancellor alongside the increasingly jaded Jean-Claude Juncker illustrated how essential it will be for the EPP to skip a generation of leaders when it comes to electing its Spitzenkandidat in November. My money is on the former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb – a honed Ironman competitor with the presentational skills and personality to sell the EU to a sceptical public.
The Polish Prime Minister was also in Strasbourg to defend another vision of Europe. While Kurz was selling Austria as the pivotal state, bridging the east-west divide in Europe, Mateusz Morawiecki was espousing the Trimarum dream of an alliance of states from the Baltics to the Black Sea. He stressed this was to compliment the EU, not compete with it, but the feeling in Poland was that the west had never really understood what 50 years under communist tyranny felt like. All those woolly liberal MEPs lecturing him about changes to the judiciary did not understand that some of the same judges who had locked-up (or sometimes worse) his friends during the period of martial law, were still serving in the courts today. One of his strongest critics in the debate was EPP leader, Manfred Weber, who regretted that he had missed a golden opportunity to answer his critics. While this would seem to put to bed any prospects of the Law & Justice party ever joining the EPP, it was interesting that Morawiecki did not rule it out, answering a journalist’s question by saying they would see what happens after the elections and that they shared the same values as the founding fathers.
Examples of waning British influence in the House were in evidence once again when the Tories were outvoted by their ECR colleagues in accepting two MEPs into the group from the far-right Swedish Democrats. The Swedes go to the polls in September and the Swedish Democrats could be the next success story for the populist wave sweeping Europe. Manoeuvring on the euro-sceptic right seems to have started well before the elections and there will be a fight to see whether some revamped ECR under Polish leadership can out gun the far-right alliance of nationalists that the Italian League leader Matteo Salvini is trying to engineer. The only comforting thought for the moderate centre is that the far-right have a track record of tearing themselves apart as huge egos collide.
While MEPs sweltered in the summer heat there was no repeat of the “plague of dancing” that apparently hit Strasbourg in July 1518, where records state that several hundred people developed a compulsion to dance for days on end until they collapsed or dropped dead on the spot. On second thoughts, it sounds curiously like the Bar des Aviateurs on a Tuesday night where a heady mixture of MEPs, assistants and lobbyists have been known to throw inhibitions to the wind.