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Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel

Cher Grégoire,

Soaring energy prices dominated the political agenda in Strasbourg, with no quick fix on the horizon. EU leaders meeting in Brdo had already voiced their frustration at the delayed Commission toolbox of support measures, and in plenary Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson dampened expectations of anything ground-breaking, hampered as they are by limited powers to intervene in national energy markets. MEPs were quick to use the crisis to jump on their own hobby horses. Jerzy Buzek argued the controversial Nordstream II gas pipeline from Russia was part of the problem, not the solution, and there needed to be full compliance with the Gas Directive. Socialists lined up to demand an investigation into market manipulation (Russia again the target) and called for gas storage capacity to be boosted and a common gas purchase programme, similar to the successful joint vaccine purchase. The Greens echoed comments from Frans Timmermans that this crisis reinforced the need to move from gas to renewables and this was no time to go soft on climate targets. All sides seem to want Brussels to take on a bigger role, but the Commission is rightly wary of being held responsible for a crisis it cannot control.

Excitement is mounting at the prospect of a closely fought election for a new leader of the Renew Europe group, following Dacian Ciolos’ return to Romanian politics. Some will unkindly say they he never really left the domestic scene and has been an ineffectual leader in forging a middle way between EPP and Socialists. He certainly lacked the lofty oratory skills of his predecessors Guy Verhofstadt and Graham Watson. The contest is currently between Dutch firebrand, Sophie in t‘Veld and Macron’s man in Brussels, Stéphane Séjourné, although other contenders have until next Tuesday to join the fray.

It would be a huge humiliation if the French lost out again, following the disastrous candidacy of Nathalie Loiseau back in 2019. They are over twice the size of any other national delegation and with an EU Presidency and Presidential elections on the horizon, they are clearly looking for platforms to push their policies and their man. However, Sophie in’t Veld is no pushover and will look to the old ALDE members for support against the fears of French domination. She recently wrote a book called “The scent of wild animals” which warned that the EU was becoming more inter-governmental and needed a strong parliament “to be the political arena, with the scent of wild animals, sweat and sawdust, the battleground for political ideas and political big beasts”. Sounds like it should be quite a contest, with the winner revealed on 19 October.

The French may have their eye on another prize as groups jockey for position to provide the first Chairman of the EU-UK Parliamentary Assembly. Given Anglo-French tensions over fish, submarines and about 1000 years of history, a French chairman would certainly be provocative. The Assembly has no formal powers but can make recommendations to the EU-UK Partnership Council that governs the trade agreement and will no doubt stiffen the Commission’s resolve to uphold the Northern Irish Protocol.

New fora are always popular in a large parliament where there aren’t enough top jobs to satisfy egos. The EPP used the debate on EU-US relations to call for a Transatlantic Political Council (not to be confused with the trade & tech one) to improve communication channels and avoid tensions recently seen with the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the submarine pact with the US and Australia. Croatian member Željana Zovko told the House“ We need a middle way between European strategic autonomy and the total reliance on our transatlantic partners.”

See you back here in two weeks,

Richard