Postcard from Strasbourg by Richard Steel
An extraordinary plenary session for extraordinary times. Parliament’s ushers, still formally attired in their penguin suits, seemed to outnumber the small number of MEPs who were permitted to attend to ensure some sort of quorum. Of the 30 Members who took the floor, surprisingly few were Belgian, suggesting a fair number of MEPs from across Europe are holed up indefinitely in Brussels. It was good to see President Sassoli back from his self-imposed isolation and he stressed the symbolism of their gathering, demonstrating that democracy could not be suspended and while their activity had slowed down, it hadn’t stopped.
It was left to President von der Leyen to speak some home truths about the initial reaction to the crisis and she didn’t hold back. When Europe needed to be there for each other and show solidarity, too many countries initially looked after themselves, shutting borders and preventing exports of vital equipment. “When Europe needed a an all-for-one spirit, too many initially gave an only-for-me response”. Without mentioning names, she clearly had her home country in mind for preventing the export of masks. She was pleased to confirm that things were now looking better thanks to coordinated action at the EU level and she listed the series of actions, from green lanes to ensure movement of goods to joint procurement of vital equipment, to which 25 member states had now signed up. The sight of patients from Strasbourg being treated in hospitals in Luxembourg or Germany was the image the EU wanted to give.
Fears that the populists would take advantage of the EU’s delayed response were borne out by the French far-right MEP Nicolas Bay, who claimed border controls were a matter of common sense and Brussels’ slavish adherence to free movement had allowed contaminated people to circulate freely. COVID 19, he predicted with glee, would be “the final nail in the coffin of this supranational and impotent bureaucracy”. Derk Jan Eppink, co -leader of the ECR group, was also quick to point the finger of blame, accusing the Commission of being too obsessed with climate action to realise the scale of the crisis. He called for a wholesale restructuring of the MFF to re-direct funds from the Green Deal to helping economic recovery. He is not a lone voice to try and use the crisis to row back on the Green Deal ambitions, with Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis already calling on EU leaders to forget about the Green Deal for now, and Polish Ministers arguing that the ETS should be dismantled. With Green Deal initiatives like the Farm to Fork strategy postponed by a month due to the crisis, it’s an argument that is going to be heard more and more.
This first virtual plenary seems to have gone smoothly enough and 687 out of 705 MEPs managed to navigate the system and vote remotely. One Green MEP pleaded with his colleagues not to “reply to all” when voting, that was taking transparency a step too far. The next three plenaries up to the summer will follow the same format and the earliest they will be back in Strasbourg is September. The technology seems to be in place for committees to now try and meet by video and the Greens were proud to announce that they had held their first virtual group meeting.