Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
MEPs remain remarkably united on taking a tough stance against Russia and there was cross party support for a full energy embargo, including both gas and oil. This was all the more remarkable given that the joint resolution agreed between the groups had initially only called for gas to be included “as swiftly as possible”. This caveat was removed by a resounding majority and the pressure is back on the Council to match their ambition. European Council President Charles Michel had already acknowledged in plenary that measures on oil and gas would be needed sooner or later and Ursula von der Leyen also confirmed the 5th package of sanctions would not be the last and action on oil was coming soon.
Parliament had already stolen a march on both Commission and Council following the symbolic visit of President Metsola to Kyiv on 1 April. As President Zalensky continues his virtual global tour of national parliaments, it was fitting that the President representing the people of Europe should address the Ukrainian parliament. Metsola told the brave Members present “ I am here to tell you that we are with you, in good times and in difficult times. We will never leave your side … Ukrainian people are heroes, you are fighting for what we all believe in: freedom, democracy, the rule of law. Without these values, there is nothing else”.
Right on cue, President von der Leyen finally announced that the Commission had activated for the first time the rule of law mechanism against Hungary. The Parliament has been crying out for this for years and the timing right after Viktor Orban’s thumping electoral victory will have many claiming they should have acted sooner to prevent Orban channelling billions of EU taxpayers money to his own political ends. Withholding recovery funds however comes with risks and the Poles have already warned that they could hold up crucial Fit for 55 votes if provoked. Their continued obstruction of the 15% minimum corporate tax proposal indicates there are not veiled threats.
Von der Leyen’s announcement on Hungary came during the return of Question Time to the plenary agenda. The quick fire Q&A was re-introduced in a bid to spice up proceedings but the Commission President batted away any tricky questions. When asked if the she would accept Treaty changes if recommended by the Conference on the Future of Europe, she remained open to the option but thought that the existing Treaty was flexible enough to deal with most initiatives. Would she slow down the Green Deal? Absolutely not, the war had revealed their ”ugly dependency on fossil fuels” and the faster they moved out of them, the better.
The return of Question Time was just one of the proposals to emerge from the reflection initiated by former President Sassoli on how to reform the workings of the Parliament. It seems to be still very much a work in progress but the steady trickle of lobbyists and visitors attending the session offers some hope that life is returning to Strasbourg.