Strasbourg Diary #1 – Listening to the Heart of EU’s Democracy As Terror Shuts the EU Capital Down

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Travelling to Strasbourg for this week’s European Parliament Plenary session felt like a mission. With Brussels under lockdown for the whole weekend and the state of emergency extended, no one really knew what to expect when leaving the security of ones home. Metros shut, schools and shops closed, army trucks stationed at every street corner, the city was deserted. The feeling of emptiness followed into the Thalys for Strasbourg. Not a soul in the wagon.

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However, approaching Strasbourg, the train was gradually populated and life reappeared. At the entry of Strasbourg’s European Parliament, the reverberation of the Paris attack was visible with security measures installed like never before. The entry to the European Parliament resembled that of the US State Department and not an EU institution. However, once inside, it was business as usual. Terror did not stop Parliament from running its busy agenda.

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Items on the agenda

  • State of the Energy Union – “2016 will be the Energy Union year of delivery”

The European Commission’s Vice President for Energy Union, Maros Sefcovic, delivered his first State of the Energy Union speech to the European Parliament, sending three key messages:

  1. The EU needs to be the leader in the global transition to a low carbon economy
  2. In order for this transition to happen, the EU needs to effectively tackle and eradicate energy poverty
  3. Geopolitical challenges will not go away and therefore the EU needs to keep pushing for the diversification of energy sources and suppliers, especially through its LNG strategy

Sefcovic reiterated the European Commission’s push for a more ambitious 30% target for energy efficiency, a target unlikely to appease Greens in the European Parliament ahead of the review of the energy efficiency directive in 2016. Sefcovic once again also announced the review of the security of gas supply regulation as well as the review of the decision for the exchange of information mechanism for intergovernmental agreements with third countries. Furthermore, he made a clear statement on Nord Stream’s expansion, stressing that the project would not benefit from EU financing.

As the inter-institutional tug of war between the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament continues to evolve, Sefcovic also formally announced that the European Commission’s energy services will be reporting annually on the progress member states have made in bringing their energy systems in line with Energy Union goals and objectives. Furthermore, he underlined that member states are expected to present national energy and climate plans to the Commission on a bi-annual basis in order to foster regional cooperation.

In summary, the debate was a taste of things to come. Energy Union has been branded as a new initiative, but its design and objectives are poised to deliver on goals and commitments reminiscent of previous objectives, including the completion of the internal energy market in electricity and gas, encouraging investments in R&D and positioning the EU as a global leader in decarbonisation efforts. The debate in the chamber has not changed in terms of content. ETS was clearly the elephant in the room during this debate. In a house where the numbers of the peripheries have multiplied, MEPs will have to work even harder than the previous term to find acceptable compromises on the same polemic issue: finding a balance between ensuring the competitiveness of European industries and ambitious climate goals.

  • Special Tax Committee report – a response to the Lux leaks scandals

The aim of this report is to guarantee fair corporate taxes across Europe. The report urges EU member states to agree on mandatory country-by-country reporting by multinationals of profits and taxes, a common consolidated corporate tax base, common definitions for tax terms and a better protection for whistle-blowers. MEPS also demand more transparency with regard to national tax rulings for companies and insist for their communication to the Commission for a centralised legality check.

  • Debate on recent terrorist attacks in Paris

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MEPs also held a key debate on the Paris terrorist attacks. The Council recognised the need to finalise the Passenger Name Recognition (PNR) as well as the package on data protection before the end of the year. The Council will also be reviewing the legislation on trafficking of firearms and member states have been invited to share their intelligence on existing EU systems. The Council finally called for a Directive to update the framework decision on the fight against terrorism. President Juncker advised that PNR be extended to intra-EU flights as well and called for a united Europe to protect Schengen. Finally, acquiesced by numerous MEPs, he proposed to develop stronger collaboration with Mediterranean countries and better cooperation between national intelligence agencies to fight terror.

Inevitably, the debate resurrected a number of key issues that have been sitting idly in the “phantom zone” e.g. data protection and PNR. MEPs have been divided on striking a good balance between privacy and security, PNR and data protection. Moreover, the discussion amongst MEPs revealed hints of the repetitive discourse for the need for more Europe vs. the need for better cooperation amongst member states. This was particularly evident when the debate focused on the role of intelligence agencies. Concluding, MEPs overwhelmingly agree that there is no more time for petty political debates or intrigues. It is the time for unity and action and the current circumstances could provide the much needed political impetus that was missing.

Paris tribute 2.jpg 4Surprisingly on such a historic debate, the auditorium was half empty. Some assistants commented it was actually half full, which is good for Strasbourg. The Star Wars looking assembly filled with MEPs a little before the voting session as the Italian President Sergio Mattarella addressed the plenary. “Only with more unity among states will we be able to defeat terrorism” the President warned “No country can face it on its own… Apparently simple responses do not help, in part because they lead us to renounce fundamental rights”. President Mattarella opined that MEPs should update Europe to respond to the influx of refugees which will continue to increase.

Reflecting on this week’s plenary after three days of meetings and listening to historic debates; the take is very positive. It is action’s time. Europe is on the move. Terror will not stop it as member states brace together to fight a borderless threat. The question today is whether Europe will meet its historical RDV with COP 21 next week at the city of lights.
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Text by Sarah Cummings, Consultant and Constantine Levoyannis, Senior Consultant at FTI Consulting’; photos by Constantine Levoyannis.   

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