Trailing down to Strasbourg for the monthly meeting of the European parliament and Commission has its advantages. I am not referring to the non-stop Christmas drinks parties that spill into the lengthy corridors of the Tower of Babel, and carry on until the small hours in the bars of the agreeable French city..

Rather it is the occasional access to the power players that all have to make the same journey. On Tuesday I was just across the aisle from Jose Manuel Barroso, the Commission president, and Joao Vale de Almeida, his suave chief of staff, on the flight from Brussels.

Having mentally kicked myself for never taking up Portuguese as they chatted to each other I relied on sight alone to glean the workings of Barroso’s mind. He sat down with a vast stack of papers.

First was Le Figaro, an evident attempt to glean the workings of French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s mind. Sarko is making all the running in the EU at the moment, spitting out policy ideas daily, and causing headaches by cosying up to China, Russia and now Colonel Gadaffi. Then it was the International Herald Tribune, for a sense of the US sees Europe. Next came the Financial Times, though I would humbly suggest that it looked like it had already been leafed over the Barroso breakfast table.

Finally it was El Pais, where he was excited by a story tipping Felipe Gonzalez, the former Socialist prime minister, to be head of proposed group of “wise men” that will ponder the future of Europe. It was hard to tell if the body language was positive or negative.

However, most time was spent over Monday’s FT and our exclusive interview with Henri Guaino, Sarko’s eminence grise. He had called for a less legalistic EU. “European affairs cannot be governed only by general, impersonal, automatic rules which have been fixed in advance,” he said, disturbing the serene calm of the lawyers and bureaucrats of Brussels. There were lengthy conversations (again in Portuguese) with his spokesman, Johannes Laitenberger, over chocolate and sandwiches.

I told him I had noticed his interest as he rose to leave the plane. He favoured a political dimension to Europe, he said. However, that must be based on the rule of law. “In France you obey la loi de la Republique,” he said. In Europe we must obey community law. Without that there is nothing.”

His nuanced position could win him support from the UK and France for a second term. As for me, I learned that, despite grumbling, something unexpected always happens in (or on the way to) Strasbourg – and that I should take up Portuguese. 

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