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The President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, is finally expected to officially resume his functions next week after an illness of several months. But instead of a welcome parade, he’ll immediately be faced with a growing insurgency because of his decision to force the in-person presence.
With the pandemic returning to the continent, MEPs are strongly protesting against being required to come to Parliament’s home in Strasbourg next week for a full plenary session. Around 10 petitions challenging the decision were circulating among lawmakers on Wednesday, garnering dozens of signatures. And in recent days, more than 80 MPs and employees have tested positive for COVID-19, illustrating the potential ramifications of the gathering of more than 1,000 people in Strasbourg.
To put it lightly, this means the upcoming rally promises to be controversial, just as Sassoli plans to fully resume his presidential post after just over two months recovering from a severe bout of pneumonia.
The question is not just how parliament will handle this session, but all of its work ahead during what promises to be a COVID-infused winter – already several countries have started cracking down. One of the petitions in circulation, written by two high-ranking MEPs, called on Sassoli to “return to the special diet”, a mixture of traditional in-person work and remote participation. In just 24 hours, it collected 179 signatures, or more than a quarter of Parliament.
“The COVID situation is getting worse in all member states,” German MEPs Angelika Niebler and Daniel Caspary wrote in an email to Sassoli. “We are concerned that 705 members will vote in attendance in plenary next week. ”
Since the pandemic began in 2020, Sassoli has taken drastic measures to curb the spread of the virus within Parliament, including canceling plenary sessions in Strasbourg and most in-person meetings of Parliament. But with the easing of lockdowns, the rollout of vaccines and the number of cases declining over the summer, Parliament returned to Strasbourg in June in a hybrid format – there were a few face-to-face interactions, but a much of the action took place online. MPs voted in their desks, attended group meetings online and negotiated amendments on their computers.
Earlier this month, Parliament’s hybrid system came to an abrupt end when Sassoli decided that Parliament could ‘resume business as usual’ in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg – the three places of work of Parliament – while using a COVID passport system, face mask warrant, and body temperature checks. Last week, a total of 580 MEPs participated in person in the parliament’s mini-plenary in Brussels.
Parliament had hoped to maintain the same rules for next week’s full session in Strasbourg, despite the upsurge in COVID cases across Europe, including in Belgium. The EU headquarters on Wednesday tightened the country’s COVID restrictions, including new telecommuting requirements.
Parliament has also not been immune from the resurgence of the pandemic. Parliament officials say four people worked in the Brussels building of the legislative body recently tested positive, while more than 80 others contracted COVID through outside connections.
“And since then the number has increased,” an official said.
Officially, Parliament maintains its decision.
“The pandemic situation is constantly monitored closely,” said a spokesperson for Parliament. “We are satisfied that we have been able to move towards a situation closer to the normal work of Parliament without reducing health guarantees for all those working in the EP.”
But the fury of MEPs, which started last week during the mini-plenary in Brussels, has only intensified. Many lawmakers are complaining that the new rules requiring in-person attendance at plenary sittings and other parliamentary meetings put 705 MEPs and their staff at risk, given the current phase of the pandemic.
Another Parliament official called next week’s plenary “the biggest gathering of all European institutions since the first blockades in 2020”, adding that the Strasbourg hemicycle does not allow physical distancing.
German MEPs Niebler and Caspary echoed the concern in the email to Sassoli.
“Considering the current pandemic situation, we want to avoid having so many colleagues and staff sitting together for so long without any distance,” they wrote.
The controversy spread to the various political groups within Parliament. On Wednesday, French MEP Stéphane Séjourné, leader of the liberal group Renew Europe, was to consult all members of the group on their plans for next week.
“Across Europe, the numbers are exploding and as we enter the fourth wave, Parliament is abandoning all precautions and putting MEPs neck and neck … it’s ridiculous,” said Daniel Freund, a German MEP from the Greens .
“There are many opportunities for hybrid operation,” he added. “Now all of the progress we have made in modernizing Parliament is lost sight of.”
Several parliament officials have even argued that Sassoli may have canceled Thursday’s regular “Conference of Presidents” – a permanent meeting of Sassoli and the parliament’s political group leaders – in order to avoid the wrath of parliamentarians. MEPs on the matter.
But a spokesperson for Sassoli said the meeting was simply called off because “there wasn’t much to decide, and what little we have to decide can go through written procedure.”
Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.