Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
It was an inauspicious start to the week. The special train ferrying officials down to Strasbourg broke down for several hours in the picturesque French countryside, leading to the inevitable headlines about the gravy train being derailed and renewed complaints about the travelling circus.
Of more concern to the Strasbourg lobby will be reports that Angela Merkel has come out in favour of a single seat for the parliament, reportedly telling EPP MEPs “I know what problems I create for Luxembourg and France, but in the long run, this structure does not strengthen our ability to act”. It will be interesting to see if she repeats these heretical views when she addresses the House in November.
It’s tempting to draw a parallel with an altogether different group of passengers stuck in transit. Delayed MEPs arrived in Strasbourg to the news that a ship with over 600 refugees had become the centre of a heated stand-off between the governments of Italy, Malta, Spain and France. The response to the crisis gives an early indication of the issue that will surely dominate and define the next parliamentary elections – migration. Socialist leader Udo Bullmann lost no time praising the humanitarian gesture from the new Spanish government –“you can feel the fresh wind coming from Madrid’. Meanwhile EPP leader Manfred Weber was arguing that unless EU leaders got to grips with the problem of illegal migration, the populist surge would continue unabated. A Europe that protects will become the leitmotif of the EPP’s election manifesto and an early draft of their priorities indicates the tough line they are prepared to take to stop votes haemorrhaging to the far-right. Building border fences and sending a rapid reaction force to deal with crises will make many of their moderate members squirm but will please the Orban/Kurz/CSU side of the group.
How far the EPP is willing to go to remain the dominant force in the parliament is nicely captured in the dilemma of whether to bring the governing Polish PiS party into the fold. Weber has long resisted calls to expel Orban on the grounds that the rest of the group can be a moderating influence on the Hungarian leader. Whether the same arguments would apply to a Polish government in open rebellion against the values the EPP espouses remains to be seen and several EPP members, including the more moderate Civil Platform party of Donald Tusk, have already warned they would leave a group that included the Polish nationalists. Which makes all the more interesting the intervention from the next EU leader to set out their vision for Europe at the July session, one Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland.
Guy Verhofstadt left no one in any doubt where he stands, sending out an explosive, Trump-style tweet: “Europe has a fifth column in its ranks: Putin’s cheerleaders who want to destroy Europe & liberal democracy from within: Le Pen, Wilders, Farage, Orban, Kaczynski, Salvini use Kremlin money & intel. Like Farage’s friend Arron Banks who colluded w/Russians to deliver Brexit”. The list reads like the world cup team of some minor nation. Farage lost no time demanding he retract the accusation or face his lawyers.
One group of migrants that can expect the red carpet treatment are the 18,000 lucky 18-year olds selected to have a free rail travel pass under the #DiscoverEU project. They are encouraged to share their experiences and travel discoveries, which hopefully will not be a litany of delayed or cancelled trains across Europe’s beleaguered rail network. For once it was not French rail workers on strike but the parliament’s interpreters, angry at changes in their working conditions. They do a fine job of ensuring nothing is lost in translation but there is an inherent risk in such action that MEPs might conclude that they got on rather well without interpretation and enforce even more cut-backs.
Enjoy the football,