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Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Cher Grégoire,

As members flocked back to Strasbourg for only the second in-person session since February 2020, the hotels and winstubs were rubbing their hands with glee. It wasn’t quite back to normal though. Most staff and assistants were left at home, although lobbyists are now allowed in with their passes sanitaires. Voting is still done digitally and face masks remain obligatory. Frans Timmermans sported a fetching rainbow mask that had trouble covering his bushy beard but sent a not-so-subtle signal to Hungary over its anti-LGBT law.

The focus was all on Ursula von der Leyen as she delivered her second State of the Union (SOTEU) speech. She has a better delivery than the meandering Juncker monologues or dull, professorial Prodi lectures, but she still lacks the rhetorical flourishes that whip up an audience. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all to invite as her guest of honour Italian gold-medal Paralympic athlete, Bebe Vio,  who received the loudest ovation of the morning. She quoted Robert Schuman, Vaclav Havel and Jacques Delors but had no memorable lines of her own that will be re-played in 20 years time. Certainly not her parting shot “But imperfect as it might be, our Union is both beautifully unique and uniquely beautiful”. As a little aside, surely her script writer could have added the fight against cybercrime in the section on semi-conductors and microchips and we could have had the EU Phish & Chips Act.

While most of her speech was in English, you were left working out what subliminal messages she was sending by choosing French for the section on social policy and German for the importance of the rule of law. Even some of her earlier policy initiatives suffered name changes, so no more talk of Fit for 55, but instead the less catchy Green Deal package. And the long piece on the Defence Union avoided the term “strategic autonomy” and talked instead of military independence. The whole speech ended up lasting one hour, enough time for Commissioners Vestager and Johansson to complete several rows of knitting. Maybe a new mask for Timmermans?

It was somehow fitting that the SOTEU session should have been chaired by First Vice-President Roberta Metsola in the absence of President Sassoli, who had developed a mysterious illness during the night. Metsola is one of the EPP front-runners to take over Sassoli’s seat on a permanent basis in January, now that EPP leader Manfred Weber has opted not to stand. Weber decided not to risk another failure after losing out to his compatriot for Commission presidency and will now concentrate leadership of the EPP under himself. Not only will he seek re-election as EPP group leader in October, but he will also stand as EPP president next April when Donald Tusk’s mandate ends. This will allow him to oversee and coordinate legislation inside the Group as well as using his role as EPP President to strengthen ties with EPP national leaders and party members – something he did very well in his campaign to be EPP candidate for Commission President.

Socialist leader Iratxe Garcia was reluctant to commit so early to respecting the deal reached in 2019 for an EPP candidate to replace Sassoli. Rumours are circulating that Sassoli wants to continue on the grounds that his presidency had been dominated by dealing with the pandemic and he deserves a second chance. It also leaves the Socialists without a president of any of the EU institutions and a SPD victory in Germany could shore up their demands for parity. The EPP’s chances are helped by putting forward a female candidate. Metsola and Dutch MEP Esther De Lange are current favourites and EPP First VP Esteban Gonzalez Pons has indicated he won’t stand in order for the EPP to find a consensus candidate.

The debate on the Fit for 55 package gave an early indication of where the battles lie ahead. Esther de Lange delivered the new EPP mantra « de-carbonisation not de-industrialisation », fighting climate change with innovation, competitiveness and European jobs. Frans Timmermans struck back and accused MEPs of being “paralysed by the fear of change”. In reply to the storm of protests against including housing and road transport in the ETS, he acknowledged “all these measures have a price effect, and the art of politics will be to ensure that the price effect does not affect the most vulnerable”. De Lange herself will steer through the new Social Climate Fund – unless of course she gets the top job come next January.