Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
Amidst all the institutional empire-building, it’s good to see the European Parliament get down to some serious downsizing. The dilemma of what to do with the 73 seats vacated by the departing Brits has been partly resolved but still requires Ministerial approval before being set in stone.
The House voted to cut their overall size from 751 to 705 and re-distribute the remaining 27 seats among countries whose current populations no longer match their seat allocation. The French and Spanish in particular will be greedily eyeing up the five additional seats they are due to receive as part of the Brexit dividend. The Irish stand to gain two more MEPs, no doubt due to a population explosion caused by anxious Brits finding long-lost Irish grannies to claim citizenship. President Macron’s support for trans-national lists to fill the remaining empty seats was not enough to sway a sceptical EPP, who even put out a slick video to explain why such lists would further distance the voters from their representatives. EU leaders look likely to kick this federalist dream into the long grass for some time to come. So what to do with the 46 empty offices once the union jacks and pictures of Margaret Thatcher have been taken down? They could be covered in a thick layer of dust before any Serbian or Montenegran MEP needs office space, with the date of 2025 for any future enlargement to the Western Balkans seen as purely aspirational.
The latest prime minister to set out his vision for Europe’s future was from Croatia, the newest kid on the bloc, and it was no coincidence that he was invited the same week as President Juncker set out his strategy for the Western Balkans. Andrei Plenkovic, an MEP before becoming PM, portrayed Croatia as a symbol of what can be achieved by the “transformative power” of the EU. He set out his EU credentials, saying Croatia wanted to join everything – the euro, Schengen, the defence union. However, the slow-burning border dispute with neighbouring Slovenia revealed the problems that still lie ahead for even front-runners in the EU accession race such as Serbia and Montenegro. Juncker warned that there would be no further enlargement until border disputes were resolved and that the 2025 date was purely indicative- “more of an encouragement for Balkan states to get their act together”.
Another prime minister plucked from the Strasbourg benches is the new Romanian PM, Viorica Dancila, whose Socialist-led government is the latest to find itself in the EU dock charged with controversial judicial reforms. She wasn’t available to defend her country in the plenary debate and protocol decreed that her Justice Minister, who was doing the rounds in Strasbourg, was not allowed to speak in plenary. With the Socialist government In Malta also under scrutiny over the rule of law, the naughty chair is no longer the preserve of right wing regimes in Poland and Hungary.
I’m struggling to choose a good Brexit story from the agenda as it seems as if everything nowadays has a potential Brexit angle. MEPs this week called for a review of the EU directive that harmonises putting the clocks back and forward on the grounds that the practice disrupts our circadian rhythm. That’s the physical, mental and behavioural changes that follow daily cycles – or put simply, our sleep/wake cycles. What better example for the Brexiteers of taking back control than to rip up this bit of Brussels interference and boldly announce British summer time when it suits Nigel et al. I’ll resist re-telling the old gag about UKIP wanting to turn the clock back 70 years.