Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
The race for the presidency of Parliament is well and truly on and could have wider political ramifications than just who presides over the Assembly. For weeks now the Socialists have been pressed on whether they will respect the 2019 deal to pass on the presidency to the EPP, and for weeks they have prevaricated. Iraxte Garcia, newly re-elected as Socialist leader, claimed this week that no-one was entitled to the post or owned it. Incumbent, David Sassoli, went a step further and argued that electing an EPP candidate ahead of the 2024 elections would be “ a political error at a moment when, in Europe, we are at an advantage as a political family … it’s unacceptable for us to be led to European elections by a circle of conservatives”. The timing of the German coalition deal could not have been more fortuitous.
Meanwhile back in EPP HQ they were ringing the alarm bells. Manfred Weber didn’t mince his words, warning that reneguing on the deal could have knock on consequences for the key legislative files on the table. They should be focusing on Fit for 55 and working with the French presidency, he said, rather than internal games of musical chairs. In case his friends in Renew Europe weren’t listening, he pointed out that their man Charles Michel also needed to be re-elected at the end of the year.
Enter stage left new Renew leader Stéphane Séjourné, whose remit is to help Emmanuel Macron win a second term, not fight internal battles. He stressed that policy came before personalities and the key was to ensure the three big groups agreed on priorities for the next 2 ½ years.
So the question remains what prize is big enough for the Socialists to stay on board? Is it Charles Michel’s head on a plate and a first ever Socialist President of the European Council? That requires a suitable former Socialist PM as a candidate and they are a rarity. I’m not sure Magdalena Andersson’s 7 hours as Swedish PM this week qualifies her. But that scenario would infuriate Renew and upset the carefully constructed balance behind the pre-European majority. Additional Vice Presidents for the S&D in the parliament doesn’t sound like much of a bonus but it may be all that’s available.
The Socialist cause is not helped by the fact that if he did stand again, Sassoli would be up against a young, female, multi-lingual EPP candidate from a small member state. Roberta Metsola comfortably won the internal EPP election and was presented as the unifying candidate. She is a classic product of the Brussels bubble, with a CV including College d’Europe in Bruges and stints in the Maltese Perm Rep and Commission. She also has four children, who if they teamed up with Ursula von der Leyen’s brood of seven could form a useful football team.
The mid-term election of a new EP President in January will also herald some changes in the leadership structure and maybe even some committee chairmen. For once size does matter, and top jobs are shared out based on the size of the group, sparking off a scramble to find new recruits. Renew reached the symbolic figures of 100 Members with Carlo Calenda moving from the S&D. Talk of the remaining Italian 5 Star members moving to the Socialists was again raised this week, but no official request has been made yet; The biggest upset would be if the far-right united under Orban’s leadership and finally created a force bringing together Le Pen, Salvini and Kaczynski to challenge the status quo.
Besides all this political maneuvering there were some big policy issues on the agenda, not least approval of the CAP reform package. A bid by the far left and Greens to reject the whole reform, after years of work, was easily defeated but had led to a debate that one MEP described as “ a festival of incoherence”. Pascal Canfin, chairman of the Environment Committee, argued this was the best deal on offer and he claimed that the result was fully compatible with the Green Deal. “If you oppose this reform you come back to the current CAP which is much less green and there is no prospect to have a better deal in two years’ time”. The reform now starts in 2023, two years later than planned, and Commissioner Wojciechowski warned that the true nature of the reform will be determined by each countries national plan.