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STRASBOURG – After 15 months of absence due to the pandemic, MEPs finally returned to Strasbourg this week – to discover the Alsatian city without its usual bite.
With many MEPs and their assistants staying on the sidelines and very limited opportunities for debate, negotiation and socializing, everything looked rather pale and bland – much like a plate of the famous Sauerkraut deprived of sausage and seasoning.
Even though they were back at the official premises of the European Parliament, 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 online group meetings and amendments negotiated on their computers.
Bar talks have largely been dropped and meals are consumed in hotel rooms rather than restaurants to comply with the 9 p.m. curfew.
About 325 of the 705 members of Parliament made the trip, according to a spokesperson for the legislature. They were only supposed to bring one assistant – some of them didn’t even do it.
The atmosphere was far removed from the hustle and bustle that usually surrounds the monthly plenary sessions of Parliament, when many MEPs and staff make the pilgrimage from Brussels to Strasbourg.
“In my office, I am alone and have not seen any colleagues,” said Tomáš Zdechovský, a Czech MEP from the European People’s Party. “Normally we have a lot of dinners here, a lot of meetings … But I will not leave my apartment … At this time, it is better to stay calm and follow the rules in France.”
Far from Parliament, the city’s signature winstubs (wine bars) seemed to rely on locals and a few tourists, instead of the multilingual European politicians in costume who normally fill them.
Pascal Durand, a French MEP from the liberal Renew Europe party, regretted that this week’s visit did not have the usual dynamism.
“One of the characteristics of Strasbourg is the informal bar chat, it only exists here… Strasbourg has a very pleasant campus atmosphere,” he said. “Now we can’t have dinner with colleagues, we have two-tier 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 come under heavy pressure from the government of French President Emmanuel Macron to relaunch the Strasbourg sessions. French authorities have even offered vaccines in an attempt to bring lawmakers and aides back.
On Monday evening, Parliament President David Sassoli greeted MEPs in French and said their return would be “a very important day for the European Parliament”.
“After more than 15 months, we are back at our headquarters in Strasbourg … We have lived through a terrible time,” he said. “Resuming our normal activities in Strasbourg is a sign of confidence and hope for all of us,” he added, pointing to Jeanne Barseghian, the mayor of Strasbourg, seated on an upper floor of the hemicycle.
“We still exist! “
But getting to Strasbourg – even this week – was not easy. According to Parliament’s latest post-pandemic rules, MEPs were required to present two negative COVID tests and follow quarantine rules upon their return to Brussels or their country of origin.
French MEPs appeared to be among the more ardent participants, eager to maintain Strasbourg’s status as the official seat of parliament despite occasional attempts by their colleagues to suppress it.
They came for a session with no closed-door “trilogue” meetings to negotiate on legislative proposals, few bar tables to sit on, and few journalists to talk to.
Even a Eurosceptic MEP like Jörg Meuthen of the far-right Alternative for Germany has said he hopes to return to “real plenary discussions”.
“What’s a bit difficult is that all my assistants stayed in Brussels, so I’m on my own,” Meuthen said. “It is 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 premises of Parliament.
“This week, we only managed to fill 20% of the rooms that are occupied during a normal plenary session,” said Jean-Marc Murat, owner of the 50-room Cathedral hotel in the city center. . “From an economic point of view, it’s bad… but the most important thing for us is that the sessions get back to normal soon.
Ali, a driver for Taxis Strasbourg, complained that this week’s rally was “a bogus session, a session to please Macron”. He lamented that he only had one customer on Monday evening. “I used to do more than 15 runs each night during the sessions,” he said.
On Tuesday, the corridors of Parliament were devoid of the usual noise of the frantic footsteps of MEPs rushing to get to the hemicycle to vote. The five bars, which are usually packed with groups of MEPs having a drink after the vote, were filled with empty tables, spaced a few meters apart to respect social distancing. A 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 chair of the parliamentary committee on women’s rights. “It is a symbol that our work as MEPs is returning to normal.”
The French Minister for European Affairs, Clément Beaune, who visited 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”.
The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, at least, was happy to oblige.
“It’s good to be back in Strasbourg”, she said in French in a speech to MEPs on Tuesday. “The last plenary we had in this hemicycle was in February 2020, that was over a year ago, and how the world has changed since then.”