Brussels is getting back to normal, but it’s still not business as usual for the EU.
While schools and restaurants in the city are now mostly open after more than two months of lockdown, the European Commission and Council are still holding a majority of meetings online, news conferences remain virtual, and most staff are working from home. The European Parliament reconvenes for a plenary session this week, but on Friday EU heads of state and government will once again convene for a summit by videoconference after concluding it is still not safe to gather in person, or for leaders and their inevitably large delegations to travel to Brussels.
Getting back to business is especially challenging for the Parliament, whose 705 MEPs shuttle routinely between their 27 home countries and Brussels, and are required as a basic job function to attend large committee meetings and plenary sessions — even as some travel restrictions and social-distancing guidelines remain in place.
Many officials in Parliament concede that the EU chamber has not played a major role in decision-making so far during the coronavirus crisis, as the pandemic disrupted democracy everywhere. The contingency system leaders put in place to keep the Parliament functioning through a combination of online and physical work turned out to be extremely complicated, creating a two-speed institution that is proving difficult to sustain. And maintaining social distancing is only expected to get more difficult when MEPs begin to debate, amend and vote on measures tied to the EU’s economic recovery plan.
While the Council has adopted special decision-making procedures, now extended until July 10, and the Commission expects that a large number of its civil servants will continue teleworking for the foreseeable future, the Parliament is facing pressure to resume regular operations, so MEPs can more fully weigh in.
“It is time for us to return to normality,” said Vangelis Meimarakis, a Greek MEP and vice president of the European People’s Party group, the largest faction in the EU chamber. Even though “technology has proved to be an essential tool in the effective continuation of our parliamentary work,” Meimarakis added, “physical presence, a fortiori in politics, is necessary and irreplaceable.”
But in practical terms, “normality” is still far from being achievable.
Last week, the Parliament building resembled a ghost ship covered with foot markers, stickers, hand sanitizers, and notices of all types reminding MEPs and staff to keep a 1.5-meter distance on escalators and elevators.
The usually packed “Mickey Mouse bar” hangout was closed, while only a few MEPs walked the corridors alongside a handful of technicians who came to replace old paintings.
Many MEPs will come back for the plenary this week, with a debate about anti-racism protests and a vote on the ongoing negotiations between the EU and the U.K. on the agenda. But they will be obliged to wear masks “except when being alone in the office,” have their body temperature checked, and can be accompanied by only one assistant per office, according to updated parliamentary rules which are in force until at least June 26.
Because of social distancing, some MEPs will not be allowed in the main chamber but forced to sit in an overflow room and follow the proceedings on video.
Visitors and lobbyists will still be banned from accessing the building, and MEPs will also be denied entry if “they have been in known contact with a person whose infection with the new coronavirus COVID-19 has been confirmed.”
Some MEPs working remotely complained they had become second-class lawmakers who could not speak in plenary, were unable to benefit from their daily allowance (the flat rate of €323 to attend plenaries and committee votes in Brussels or Strasbourg), and missed crucial physical interactions during lockdown.
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Some also expressed fears that their constituents would wrongly view their absence from in-person sessions as truancy.
“Already, we are seeing a two-class system,” one German MEP said. “Some MEPs can do press conferences, meet group leaders, have informal discussions with colleagues, while other colleagues can’t come.
“MEPs will not accept that this continues,” the German MEP added.
Some MEPs are still stranded in countries where borders have not yet reopened or because airports, including the main Brussels airport in Zaventem, are not yet back to normal operations.
Some of those MEPs said they felt at a disadvantage compared with colleagues who live in Brussels full-time, like Portuguese MEP Pedro Silva Pereira or Esteban González Pons of Spain, and who remained in the EU capital throughout the lockdown.
Some German, Dutch and Luxembourgish MEPs were able to cross borders thanks to special passes issued by the Parliament or because border controls were not as severely restricted between those countries.
But other MEPs are resisting a return to normal operations. They are reluctant to mingle with hundreds of their colleagues for health reasons.
Janina Ochojska, a Polish MEP from the EPP, said she would not attend the plenary session because of her reduced immunity due to cancer treatment and “the associated risk of coronavirus infection when in the plane or in a large group of people.” Ochojska said keeping enough space from colleagues at work was “not the main problem,” because the Parliament had found technological solutions to encourage social distancing.
But “nothing will replace direct contact with people and this is what I miss the most,” Ochojska told POLITICO by email.
Dita Charanzová, a Czech liberal MEP and a Parliament vice president, spoke of “real tensions” among MEPs working remotely because of the Parliament’s choice to allow only physically present lawmakers to speak publicly in plenary. “That created fear that citizens will think their MEPs are not active,” Charanzová said. (There was one exception when some political group leaders were able to speak remotely.)
Pietro Fiocchi, an MEP from the far-right Brothers of Italy, has been working from Italy since the lockdown. But he said he won’t come to Brussels this week because “MEPs are not allowed to vote in person, and not being able to speak in plenary is rather useless.”
“I will wait for the Parliament to reopen entirely, and resume work,” Fiocchi added.
In one well-publicized teleworking glitch, Irish MEP Luke “Ming” Flanagan, was caught participating in an agriculture committee meeting by videoconference in his underwear.
However, some MEPs see benefits from more online work. “It is necessary to be physically present and have interactions in plenary,” Charanzová said. “But I can imagine that some meetings could be done online as a way to balance our time in Brussels with our time in constituencies.”
Democratic role diminished
The legislature’s constitutional affairs committee is working on a text that would change rules so Parliament is better prepared if it is faced again with exceptional circumstances like a second coronavirus wave or big problems with its buildings.
One EPP official also said the Parliament’s “bureau,” which deals with administrative matters, planned to examine the possibility of restarting plenary sessions in Strasbourg, which for now have been replaced by mini-sessions in Brussels to avoid the risk of contamination that would result from travel to and from the French city.
In a strongly-worded letter addressed to Parliament President David Sassoli, Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP group, said there was “no alternative” to a “physically present” Parliament and that a “remote parliament should be strictly restricted to extraordinary situations.”
“We have to admit that despite the tremendous efforts deployed, we have all been taken by surprise by the unprecedented magnitude of the crisis,” Weber wrote. “And unfortunately our unpreparedness towards an agile adaption to the situation has been detrimental to our democratic role and should not be repeated in the future.”
The debate over how quickly to resume normal work is gripping not only the EU. German Chancellor Angela Merkel rebuffed an invitation by U.S. President Donald Trump to attend a G7 summit in person in late June, prompting Trump to postpone the event. Merkel similarly put up resistance to holding Friday’s European Council summit in person.
Council President Charles Michel told Parliament leaders on Thursday that he expects no deal can be reached on the EU’s economic recovery plan and its next long-term budget until leaders can once again negotiate face to face, and that he is hoping that will happen at a summit in early July.
Meanwhile, other big political gatherings have been canceled or postponed, including the United Nations General Assembly leaders’ meetings in September, and a planned EU-China summit that was to be held the same month in Leipzig, Germany.
A Council official said that plans were underway to admit a small number of journalists back into its building, beginning with camera crews. But the Commission’s chief spokesman, Eric Mamer, said there were no immediate plans to resume the traditional in-person midday press briefings, which are now being held via an online interactive platform.