Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
Strasbourg witnessed a dress rehearsal for the French presidential election campaign, as President Macron’s opponents took full advantage of a plenary debate on the Council presidency to score cheap political points. Macron delivered his customary oratory on how Europe should protect its values and place in the world, but as political group leaders took the floor these high ideals soon descended into political mud-slinging. EPP leader Manfred Weber was guilty of starting the process with an ill-judged plug for conservative candidate Valérie Pecresse as “real competition at the centre of the landscape”. He looked appropriately sheepish as the chamber groaned. Manon Aubry from the far left claimed the presidency logo of recovery, strength and a sense of belonging should be replaced by “arrogance, powerlessness and plotting”. Jordan Bardella, from the far right, asked how he could reunite Europe when he was busy dividing France?
But it was Yannick Jadot, the Greens’ presidential candidate, who really set the tone. Standing at the central rostrum, barely a couple of metres from Macron, he eyeballed the President as he launched into an attack on his climate “inaction”, his support for the trade deal with China – despite concerns over forced labour – and his role in tearing down refugee camps in Calais as migrants drowned. It was left to Socialist leader Iraxte Garcia to plead for some respect for their guest and for the House. She also tried to draw the debate back to their work, reminding the President that he wouldn’t be remembered for his talent as a speaker “but as a result of laws that we bring forward”.
It was a tricky first debate for the newly-elected President, Roberta Metsola. Macron’s call for the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights to be more explicit on recognition of the right to abortion raised the issue that has continued to overshadow her election. Her victory was never in doubt once the EPP, Socialists and Renew had hammered out a mid-term agreement that was more about a power grab for top jobs than any real policy coordination. It keeps together the three groups that backed the von der Leyen Commission and keeps faith with the priorities set out in the work programme, but each group will be free to fights its corner on each legislative act. The Socialists, who now go into the 2024 elections without a leader of any EU institution, were compensated with an extra Vice President and will chair a new COVID committee, but failed to oust Klaus Welle as the parliament’s powerful Secretary-General. The Greens were punished for failing to back Metsola and putting up their own candidate, losing a Vice President post to the nationalist ECR group. Green co-leader Philippe Lamberts claimed they had never been invited to take part in four-way talks and, while praising Metsola’s “stature and pragmatism”, claimed that the process that led to her victory had not been a very glorious one. The mid-term shake up concludes next week with the re-election of the committee chairs and coordinators, with no major changes signalled for the time being. In recognition of the enormous legislative workload, the Environment Committee sees its numbers increase from 81 to 88, making it by far the largest committee.
Aside from all the political posturing and manoeuvring, the silly story of the week has been revelations about plans for lavish office restorations. MEPs’ offices are currently equipped with a toilet and shower, rarely used and requiring assistants to run water for 10 minutes every fortnight to prevent Legionella. The plan is to rip them out and install state-of-the-art fixtures, which has inevitably drawn accusations of excess. The figures are indeed mind-boggling – €33 000 for partitions that turn from translucent to opaque at the flick of a switch, €25 000 on ceiling lights that look like windows. With Members spending less and less time in their offices, these ideas may never see the light of day, but the reputational damage of extravagance may already have been done.