29th Sep 2023


Self-determined MEPs

  • The end of the Brussels-Strasbourg travelling circus? (Photo: petercastleton)

This EU week shall be remembered for bringing us closer to imagining a day where the phrase ‘travelling circus’ can be consigned to a bin. Preferably in Strasbourg. Although it’s still not the done thing to say that aloud.

Yes, after years of muttering about time waste, money waste, killing the environment and poor Finnish deputies having to travel for days to get to the Alsatian capital, MEPs wrote a non-binding resolution. And then passed it.

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At last we can speak about it openly, said MEPs. Truly the revolution is no longer underground.

UK deputy Ashley Fox, the co-author of the report, which coyly failed to spell out the preferred location for parliament, found that only Churchill would do.

"It won't mean the end of the shameful monthly ritual of trekking to Strasbourg, but it may mean the beginning of the end."

Bearing in mind member states as a whole, never mind France, would rather eat their collective right arms than let MEPs meddle in an ‘own initiative’ manner in the treaty, deputies have a cunning plan.

Popular support.

They want the parliament to carry out a public poll on the matter. Nothing will be left to chance. Citizens should be asked “with specific reference to the financial, environmental and efficiency costs of this arrangement.”

Meanwhile, money matters were much less fun.

Parliament grumpily agreed to the first budget cut in EU history. It was simply no match for the “spend less more efficiently” brigade combined with David Cameron’s need to make British tabloids write nice headlines.

Back in February MEPs huffed and puffed and spoke ominously about blocking the 2014-2020 deal, which represents a pot of cash €38.2bn smaller than current one. They won a few concessions but their cherished hopes for a commitment about the EU raising its own levies have been put in a (high-level working group) bin for now.

The European Commission has also huffed and puffed about money. EU staff money. But this week it was slapped down by the court for wanting to push ahead with a 1.7 percent pay rise for EU staff in 2011.

The commission, from President Barroso downwards, argued the point on technical terms. Legally it was correct. But the message was terrible. Speaking about following ‘The Method’ while preaching about belt-tightening to member states was about the most tone-deaf political message ever.

Speaking of messages. It’s good to have someone like Viviane Reding in the commission. She’s handy for speaking out on a range of uncomfortable topics. It gives the impression that someone somewhere is doing something. She is currently the commission’s firing arm in the NSA affair, and consequently was sent to Washington earlier this week.

Unshackled both by that sinking complicit feeling (ie many leaders) or the ability to actually do anything about it, she has free rein to make as much noise as possible.

A familiar complaint is that member states agree something in Brussels and then go back home to publicly disown the decision.

Frans Timmermans, Dutch foreign minister, added his own little twist to that EU truism. His government agreed something in Brussels in May. He came back to Brussels a couple of months later to disagree with it.

And so it turns out that keeping an unwieldy 28 commissioners was just fine back in the heady days of summer. It is no longer fine in November. Not that it matters as the bloatedness is with us until 2019. Could it be that the whole thing was an exercise in political vanity?

“I like these types of minister who have their intellectual ideas just after having agreed to something else,” remarked one EU official.

Meanwhile a small footnote has to be spent on the best use of the word 'literally' this week. A Bruges paper explaining why the UK should opt for an Oslo-type relationship with the EU contains the sentence: "Taken literally, it is true that Norway influence is limited." The reader is thereafter encouraged to look beyond the literal.


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