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POSTCARD FROM STRASBOURG BY RICHARD STEEL

Cher Grégoire,

The European Parliament is in effective lockdown as the authorities struggle to keep up with the speed of events. The ruling to move the session from Strasbourg to Brussels was quickly followed up with the decision to limit the sitting to one day, cancel all meetings next week and shorten the April session to a one day meeting in Brussels. We’ve been here before, with Strasbourg shut down after the collapse of the hemicycle ceiling in 2008 and the eruption of the unpronounceable volcano in Iceland in 2010, but this seems to be on an altogether different scale. Coronavirus seems to have achieved in one week what the anti-Strasbourg lobby have struggled to achieve in ten years.

The shortened sitting didn’t prevent the few MEPs who did turn up from venting their anger on the Commission for lacking urgency and unity, with many Italian MEPs, stranded temporarily in Brussels, claiming they had been abandoned by Europe. Where was the solidarity, they asked, when Italy asked for masks or gloves, with one MEP claiming that only China had answered their call for help. Economic stimulus was urgently needed and one Lega MEP said “to hell with European constraints, Italy cannot die of the virus because of budget constraints”.

Esther de Lange, the EPP’s Vice Chair responsible for the Economy, Environment and Health, called for a flexible interpretation of the state aid rules; “We need national support programmes for companies, short hour working schemes, tax rebates and exemptions for the sectors most concerned, as well as targeted fiscal stimulus measures”. The current shortage of medicines and equipment had also highlighted dependence on production outside Europe, with 80% of the ingredients for antibiotics in Europe manufactured in China. Europe’s medical sovereignty was at stake, said de Lange, and production must be brought back to Europe.

The curtailed agenda meant no early reaction from MEPs to the Commission’s latest Green Deal proposals on the Climate Law, Industrial Strategy or Circular Economy Action Plan. Corona will no doubt play havoc with the timetable for responding to these initiatives and the timing of the Farm to Fork proposal is now in doubt. Maybe MEPs, like the rest of us, will benefit from a general slow-down and a time to catch our breath.

Keep washing your hands,

Richard