POSTCARD FROM STRASBOURG BY RICHARD STEEL
An epidemic of “foot-in-mouth” disease seemed to strike Strasbourg this week as members from all sides of the House queued up to make outrageous and disparaging remarks. Political discourse seems to have sunk to a new low. The most senior Tory in the Parliament kicked things off with an ill-judged comparison between Socialists and Nazis. Syed Kamall said he was tired of people saying Nazism was a right-wing ideology when it was really a strain of socialism –“they want the same things as you”. Cue outrage and a warning from the far-left leader Gabriele Zimmer that “you should not treat these terms lightly”. Parliament’s president, Antonio Tajani, then trampled into another minefield on the Italian budget debate by warning that public money risked ending up “in the pockets of the Roma and foreigners”. The Greens accused him of sinking to the level of right-wing populists and demanded an apology.
The last person you’d call on to calm things down is French firebrand, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Images of him confronting the police over their raids on the HQ of La France Insoumise went viral. He was in Strasbourg this week to announce a joint list for the elections with Emmanuel Maurel, who has jumped from the sinking bateau of the French Socialist party to join forces with Mélenchon on a common platform of restoring popular sovereignty. This led to the worrying sight of two left-wing populists siding with the right-wing populist Italian government against the Commission’s decision to reject the budget. Luckily they both kept their shoes on, in contrast to the Italian MEP from the far-right League, Angelo Ciocca. He demonstrated his fury at the Commission “imbeciles” who had rejected the budget by banging his designer Italian scarpa on the budget documents left by Commissioner Pierre Moscovici at the end of his press conference. The latter did not see the humour in the stunt and warned bleakly “at first we smile and banalize because it’s ridiculous, then we get used to a dull symbolic violence and one day we wake up with fascism. Stay alert! Democracy is a fragile treasure”. There is an election slogan in there somewhere.
The race for the EPP Spitzenkandidat seems to be over before ever really starting, with Manfred Weber picking up support from all sitting EPP Prime Ministers and likely to get backing from the French, Spanish and Italian parties who prefer his style of conservatism. Alex Stubb has launched a slick campaign and would probably win a popular vote but he lacks Weber’s inside track with the party members who will decide and he suffered the indignity of seeing the Finnish Christian Democrats siding with Weber. The EPP leader is still faced with the Orban question but has billed himself as a bridge builder and clearly prefers keeping Orban within the EPP family rather than see him lead a new group of nationalists.
Brexit means Brexit and so British MEPs have been told to clear their offices by 29 March, almost 3 months before the official end of their mandate. Departing Members were given details of their transition allowances at a meeting in Strasbourg this week, with expelled Tory MEP Julie Girling quipping that she had “never seen so many UKIP members attend a meeting in Strasbourg before”. There will no doubt be outrage that long-serving MEPs like Nigel Farage will be entitled to a golden handshake of almost €170,000, followed by a generous pension paid out of the financial settlement agreed under the Withdrawal Agreement. Farage would be expected to forego the payment if he finds work, and he currently earns far more for his radio show than from his MEP salary – especially since he has been on half pay since January for alleged misspending of EU funds.