In the European parliament, we have more presidents that you could shake an order paper at. We also have regular meetings of the portentously-named “Conference of Presidents” which is (as it were) the Steering Committee of the parliament, and is attended by the Presidents of each political group, accompanied by their respective group Secretaries General and various hangers-on.
In February, the meeting took place on Feb 16th, and because David Cameron was on his last ditch tour of Europe seeking to drum up support for his EU deal, he was invited to attend to set out his ideas. He accepted. Then he declined, citing time pressures. But although he hadn’t time to attend the CoP, he did seem to have time for a series of bilateral meetings with leading MEPs. Of course his real reason for ducking the meeting was that he realised that Nigel Farage, as President of the EFDD Group, would be there, and he was terrified of facing him. As Cameron had ducked out, Nigel decided he had other priorities and invited me to deputise.
There was criticism of Cameron on all sides, for ducking the meeting. His action was seen as a great discourtesy to the institution.
We also got a couple of gems from Parliament President Martin Schulz. “The UK is one of the leading economic powers of the world”. Well spotted, Martin. “The parliament can give no prior guarantee (that it will rubber-stamp Cameron’s deal after the referendum), but it will work constructively on the package”. In other words, the British public will be invited to endorse a deal, which (if they vote to stay) can be unpicked by the parliament, led by a President who also opined that “The Red card system is not a good idea”.
The Tories are well aware of the threat to Cameron’s deal represented by the power of the European parliament to unpick it after the referendum. So their man proposed an indicative vote in the parliament, ahead of the referendum, endorsing the package, to give British voters confidence that in the event of a “Remain” vote, the deal will survive. But this raises all sorts of constitutional issues – and also the possibility that MEPs might support the indicative vote (to stop Brexit) but pick it apart later (to punish the Brits for making trouble).
A comment from a portly and prominent German MEP is worth reporting: “Ever closer union is not a legal obligation”. Translated into English, this appears to mean that removing those words will make not a scrap of difference.
The meeting went on to debate the migration crisis, and if I may I’ll quote my intervention: “Mr. President, I’m no great supporter of Turkey, but you’d need a heart of stone not to sympathise with their current dilemma. We’re telling them that they should admit refugees across the Syrian border to the east, but that they should not allow those refugees to leave from the west coast to cross the Aegean Sea and go to Europe. We’re telling the Turks that we’ll give them €3 bn to help with their migrant problem, but we haven’t given it to them, and we don’t have it available.
“Mr. Schulz, you said that Germany can’t solve the refugee crisis by itself. But many might say that it created it by itself. Angela Merkel declared open season for refugees, and was then surprised when a million turned up. I’d like to know how long it will be before Germany gives those million migrants European passports.
“Currently the UK is accepting around 600,000 immigrants a year, and I have to tell you that it would be politically impossible to accept tens of thousands more as part of any EU redistribution plan”.