Search
|

Returning MEPs settle for Strasbourg lite

News   |  08.06. 2021

STRASBOURG — After 15 months away due to the pandemic, MEPs finally returned to Strasbourg this week — only to discover the Alsatian city lacking its usual bite.

With many MEPs and their assistants staying away and opportunities for debating, negotiating and socializing much diminished, everything felt rather pale and bland — a little like a plate of the city’s famous choucroute deprived of sausage and seasoning.

Even though they were back in the European Parliament’s official home, MEPs had to settle for a “hybrid” session, with some in-person contact but much of the action taking place online. They voted in their offices, attended group meetings online and negotiated amendments on their computers.

Chats at the bar have been largely been foregone, and meals are being consumed in hotel rooms rather than in restaurants to comply with a 9 p.m. curfew.

Around 325 of the Parliament’s 705 MEPs made the trip, according to a spokesperson for the legislature. They were supposed to bring only one assistant — some of them did not even do that.

The atmosphere was a far cry from the bustle that usually surrounds the Parliament’s monthly plenary sessions, when numerous MEPs and staff make the pilgrimage from Brussels to Strasbourg.

“On my office floor, I am alone and I didn’t see any colleagues,” said Tomáš Zdechovský, a Czech MEP from the European People’s Party. “Normally, we have here a lot of dinners, a lot of meetings … But I will not go out from my flat … In this time, it’s better to stay calm and follow the rules in France.”

Away from the Parliament, the city’s signature winstubs (wine bars) seemed to be relying on locals and a few tourists, instead of the multilingual European politicians in suits who normally fill them.

Pascal Durand, a French MEP from the liberal Renew Europe, regretted that this week’s visit lacked the usual vibrancy.

“One of the characteristics of Strasbourg is the informal chat at the bar, it only exists here … Strasbourg has a campus feel that is very pleasant,” he said. “Now, we can’t have dinners with colleagues, we have two-speed MEPs [some present in person, some online], and assistants who work remotely.”

After more than a year of working online and in Brussels, Parliament leaders had been under heavy pressure from French President Emmanuel Macron’s government to restart Strasbourg sessions. French authorities even offered vaccinations to try to entice lawmakers and aides back.

On Monday evening, Parliament President David Sassoli greeted MEPs in French and declared their return to be “a very important day for the European Parliament.”

“After more than 15 months, we are back at our headquarters in Strasbourg … We have experienced a terrible period,” he said. “Returning to our normal activities in Strasbourg is a sign of trust and hope for all of us,” he added, gesturing to Jeanne Barseghian, the Strasbourg mayor, sitting on an upper floor of the hemicycle.

‘We still exist!’

But getting to Strasbourg — even this week — was not easy. According to the Parliament’s latest post-pandemic rules, MEPs had to show two negative COVID tests and follow quarantine rules upon their return to Brussels or their home country.

French MEPs appeared to be among the most ardent attendees, keen to maintain Strasbourg’s status as the Parliament’s official seat despite occasional attempts from their colleagues to scrap it.
 
They came for a session with no closed-door “trilogue” meetings to negotiate on legislative proposals, few bar tables to sit at and few reporters to talk to.

Even a Euroskeptic MEP like Jörg Meuthen, of the far-right Alternative for Germany, said he hoped to come back to “real plenary discussions.”

“What’s a bit difficult is that all my assistants stayed in Brussels, so I’m alone,” Meuthen said. “It’s not normal for a plenary and in a democracy to work from the office.”

The consequences of the hybrid session were felt even beyond the Parliament premises.

“This week, we have managed to fill only 20 percent of the rooms that are occupied during a normal plenary session,” said Jean-Marc Murat, owner of the 50-room Hotel Cathédrale, in the city center. “From an economical standpoint, it’s bad … but the most important thing for us is that the sessions will come back to normal soon.”

Ali, a driver for the Taxis Strasbourg company, complained this week’s gathering was “a fake session, a session to please Macron.” He lamented that he had had only one client on Monday evening. “I used to have more than 15 rides every night during sessions,” he said.

On Tuesday, the corridors of the Parliament were devoid of the usual sound of frantic footsteps of MEPs rushing to get to the hemicycle to vote. The five bars, which are usually packed with groups of MEPs getting a drink after voting, were filled with empty tables, placed meters apart to respect social distancing. One Portuguese MEP shouted in Spanish to a colleague: “Todavía existimos!” (“We still exist!”)

Some MEPs said they had come to honor the symbol of Strasbourg, which for many represents European reconciliation after centuries of conflict.

“I smiled when I arrived,” said Evelyn Regner, an Austrian Social Democrat who is chairwoman of the Parliament’s Women’s Rights Committee. “It is a symbol that our work as MEPs is coming back to normal.”

France’s European affairs minister, Clément Beaune, who traveled to Strasbourg for the occasion, echoed Regner’s relief. Beaune acknowledged that this week’s session was “ad-hoc,” given the improved but still unusual health situation in Strasbourg.

“But we had to do it,” Beaune said, adding that what Strasbourg needed now was “proof of love.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, at least, was happy to oblige.

Source: Politico.eu