The city of Strasbourg turns into a Christmas wonderland for the final European Parliament plenary session of 2015 (minus real snow this year as parts of Europe experience incredibly mild festive weather….climate change anyone?)
Famous for its Christmas market and buildings draped with festive decorations, there was a rare atmosphere of good cheer this week throughout the corridors of power in Strasbourg after the terrible events France had suffered in recent weeks.
The consumption of large amounts of gluhwein may have played its role but there was little doubt the success of COP21 in Paris was seen by many MEPS as their Christmas gift from EU Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Miguel Arias Cañete. The success of COP21 – and Europe’s key role in sealing a deal – offered most honourable members from across Europe, its governments and the Luxembourg presidency a rare opportunity to blend their praise into a colourful rainbow of political harmony.
But like a rainbow….it didn’t last long.
And it was soon business as usual. The back slapping quickly turned into the more verbal cut and thrust of debate ….as MEPs aired their views on the Commission’s proposal for a new border force plan to help stem the migration flows into Europe.
Then as of Wednesday the political compass started to point once again back to Brussels as party group leaders had their chance to pick at the expected outcomes of the pre-Christmas summit of leaders in Brussels this week. Of course with Brexit on the menu there are no prizes for guessing the group most present and vocal in the EP on that debate.
Like the Christmas tradition of Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist – at times it felt like a food fight might break out among the honourable members as cheers and booing could be heard in the public gallery from the floor below.
Had the Brexit debate finally found its true theatrical genre of traditional British pantomime at Christmas?
If only someone had yelled from the audience “Look behind you” to Nigel or Guy (who anyway constantly looks behind him whenever he addresses the hemicycle) then perhaps Europe would have had its much needed dose of laughter.
Let’s be honest: such a Plenary week is always tough on the egos of MEPs – with the week closing back in Brussels with an EU summit. The reality is that the Strasbourg political theatre is soon up-staged by the real political actors of Merkel, Hollande, Cameron and company walking the boards of Brussels with a seemingly never-ending series of crises to handle.
Now some of the week’s highlights:
- “Towards an Energy Union” debate
Following up on the European Commission’s Vice President for Energy Union, Maros Sefcovic’s speech on the State of the Energy Union during the previous Plenary session in Strasbourg in November, Commissioner Cañete further emphasized that the Energy Union is an important and needed step for Europe. He corrected the myth put forward by certain MEPs that the Commission was overstepping its mark with its proposal and rather he underlined how Member States had instructed the Commission to take this project forward.
However, the concerns of certain right-wing groups that the Commission does not have the right to decide on the national energy mix were marginalized by the more shared acknowledgement that the energy island of Europe needs an Energy Union and energy solidarity.
Two reports were discussed and mostly welcomed by MEPs:
1. Towards a European Energy Union by Marek Józef Gróbarczyk (ECR, Poland). The report was approved with a large majority.
2. Achieving the 10% electricity interconnection target – Making Europe’s electricity grid fit for 2020 by Peter Eriksson (Vice-chair Greens/EFA, Sweden)
Outcome of the COP 21 – statements by the European Council and European Commission
Mr Cañete made a second appearance in front of the MEPs during the second day of Strasbourg to receive a number of pats on the shoulder for his instrumental role in Paris. This time the news from Paris in Strasbourg’s agenda was positive: many called the Paris Agreement a “miracle”, “historic deal”, and “major success” which filled the air with hope and the COP21 delegation with pride: Commissioner Cañete, Camille Gira, Secretary of State of Luxembourg (on behalf of Carole Dieschbourg, Minister for the Environment of Luxembourg who was busy with the Environment Council happening in parallel in Brussels) and Giovanni La Via (EPP, Italy), chair to the Parliament delegation.
Commissioner Cañete regretted that crucial industry sectors such as aviation were not included in the deal but he had fought for their inclusion until the very last moment, he said. He also acknowledged the difficult negotiations with the USA who did not accept more binding rules. MEPs who did the math warned that the sum of the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) would not achieve the 2-degree target and urged the Commission to step up its ambitions. Even thought the 40% target indented by the EU is by far the most ambitious IMDC on the table, the Commission needs to work on delivering concrete plans for achieving them.
External border controls: Proposals to strengthen the EU border agency Frontex and set up a European border and coast guard
Still, the November events in Paris cannot be forgotten and the Commission presented its ideas for strengthening security at the external EU borders. The proposals argue that in order to preserve the Schengen area a new agency should to be set up and Frontex’s powers enhanced. Whether or not the proposed new European border and coast guard institution is an encroachment into Member States’ sovereignty will be up for debate at Council meetings going forward. The Plenary debate indicated that many MEPs agree on the basic principle underlying the proposals – securing Europe’s external borders – but it also manifested the divisions among Member States on the actions proposed – Greece and Italy, Romania and Bulgaria, the UK, Hungary, Western Balkans. The details and concrete plans will be highly debated in 2016.
Preparation of the European Council meeting
In a long speech European Commission’s President Jean-Claude Juncker presented the Commission’s plan for the last Council meeting of the year on 17-18 December 2015.
The agenda for the meeting is heavy, including migration, Brexit, the Single Market, Economic and Monetary Union, and Russia and Ukraine. All leaders of the Parliamentary groups expressed their views of the above, focusing on migration and Brexit. The eloquent leaders of the ECR and ALDE called the reforms south by the UK an opportunity for a EU-wide reforms, while the others urged the Commission to follow through all its promises made in 2015.
The corridors of Strasbourg’s Parliament were especially busy on Wednesday as the morning offered the award ceremony of the 2015 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Given to (the empty seat of) Raif Badawi. The wife of the jailed Saudi human rights activist and blogger, Ensaf Haidar, accepted the prize on his behalf, opening a discussion on the freedom and role of social media.
Many European politicians and their advisors will be pleased to see 2015 drawing to a close with a new year offering a traditional time of renewal and promise of better futures. Remember the times when the word ‘crisis’ was paired only with ‘economic’ or ‘financial’? So, the European Parliament – like all European institutions – will have its work cut out in 2016 to deliver tangible actions and results; to help Europe pick itself-up and dust off its awkward and sometimes tragic division and ineffectiveness that seemed to define how it stumbled from crisis to crisis in 2015.
John Clancy is Senior Director and Mariana Varbanova is Consultant at FTI Consulting in Brussels.