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Postcards from an infected world: Can the EU operate with just a virtual capital?

 As the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in EU institutions rises, there is speculation that the European Parliament will soon fully shut down.

The European Parliament did not hold its monthly four-day plenary session in Strasbourg this week (9 March) – something it is required to do 12 times a year by the EU’s founding treaties. MEPs stayed in Brussels instead for a condensed, one-day session to avoid further spreading the coronavirus via the monthly “travelling circus” to France. No votes were taken, so MEPs didn’t have to be in the chamber at the same time.

The Strasbourg sittings – which MEPs have voted to end but France forces upon them as a matter of national pride by wielding its veto – are politically sensitive and the decision prompted a furious reaction from French lawmakers. The leftist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon went so far as to accuse the parliament of using the virus as a pretext to end the sittings. “The contempt for France in the EU is unbearable,” he cried out  on Twitter.

Such is the particular conundrum faced by the European Union institutions: they are bodies that are international and mobile by their very nature. Not only do people come from all over Europe to meet in Brussels, but the institutions themselves even move around. It is not only the parliament that moves; the Council of the EU meets three months out of the year in Luxembourg, while meetings of national ministers take place in whichever country holds the EU’s rotating presidency – at this moment Croatia.

Where these meetings take place, and how open they are, is a matter of huge political sensitivity. As the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the EU institutions rises, there is speculation that they will soon fully shut down. On 4 March it was revealed that a staffer in the European Council’s headquarters in Brussels had tested positive – even as the EU’s health ministers held an emergency meeting in the same building. Another emergency response meeting had to be cancelled because Croatia’s EU ambassador Irena Andrassy, who currently chairs the EU’s presidency, had to go into quarantine after being in contact with an infected person.

The EU Council president Charles Michel called an emergency telesummit of national leaders to discuss what to do next. In Brussels, this type of meeting may become the norm in both the private and public sector. Given that Brussels is a conference town, with much of the local economy revolving around servicing the dozens of large gatherings that take place here every day, the economic impact will be significant. The parliament’s decision to close its doors for three weeks to anyone but MEPs and staff, which forced the cancellation of 130 events affecting 7,000 people, has reverberated throughout the city. Events are being cancelled everywhere.

Even the Irish embassy’s St Patrick’s Day gala, a rather notorious highlight of the Brussels calendar, was cancelled this week. Small meetings between officials are being axed. Outside the UK’s mission to the EU, a sign tells people they must disinfect their hands before entering, and cannot enter if they have any symptoms. A press conference held by the Commission President  Ursula von der Leyen on 9 March to mark her first 100 days in office was noticeably empty, with many journalists opting to watch it online instead of taking the risk of being in a large, crowded press room.

Brussels is about to find out whether the EU can function as a virtual capital.

Read the rest of “postcards from an infected world” series here

This article appears in the 13 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down