Even a vaccine isn’t enough to persuade some European lawmakers back to Strasbourg.
The French government is trying to entice the European Parliament back to its official seat on June 7 after more than a year away during the pandemic. In addition to the renewed prospect of the region’s Alsatian wine lounges, or winstubs, and choucroute (sauerkraut), the Parliament building now has a vaccine center on-site, offering jabs that might be hard to get elsewhere for some.
But it all comes with a catch. There’s still a 9 p.m. curfew in Strasbourg, and travel rules still dictate that all staff would have to quarantine after returning to Belgium.
The result is a reduced three-day session that will be held mostly online — yet another sign that despite the increasing availability of vaccines and scaled-back COVID restrictions, Europe is far away from returning to pre-pandemic normalcy.
“The French push for Strasbourg in June and in the end no one might show up,” said Daniel Freund, a German Green MEP. “The pandemic is not over … To move the Parliament back to Strasbourg at this stage is simply ridiculous — especially for staff with families.”
When the pandemic hit Europe in March 2020, David Sassoli, the European Parliament president, canceled parliamentary sessions in Strasbourg after French authorities designated the area a coronavirus red zone. Since then, sessions have been held in Brussels, partly online and partly in person. But French officials have repeatedly expressed frustration at Sassoli’s decisions to remain in Brussels, urging him to resume sessions in Strasbourg, which is the Parliament’s official home.
Earlier this month, Sassoli said in a note to leaders of the Parliament’s political groups that sessions in Strasbourg would resume in June under a hybrid format. “We are in a sanitary situation that has improved, particularly on the contamination rate,” one Parliament spokesperson said.
“There is now a possibility in Strasbourg to eat out and sleep in hotels,” the spokesperson noted, adding that the 9 p.m. curfew would be extended to 11 p.m. on June 9 (two days after the start of the session). In addition, Parliament has set up an on-site vaccination center, which the spokesperson said MEPs and staff have used to get their jabs.
But neither the promise of vaccines nor the improved health situation in Strasbourg is sufficient to convince some MEPs to go back to Strasbourg.
Besides France’s curfew, Belgium still requires a week-long quarantine and two COVID tests for anyone who spends over 48 hours in France. And even if MEPs were exempt from quarantine rules, Freund complained that staffers would still be subject to the rules “simply for doing their job.” As a result, Freund said, staffers “could not bring their kids to school and would have to isolate from their families.”
One European People’s Party official added that even for vaccinated individuals, the “digital green certificates” — the Commission’s plan to allow vaccinated people to travel seamlessly through the bloc — will not yet be in place in time for the Strasbourg session.
“We will have to get a test, and the test rooms in the Parliament are already packed,” the official said. “I am going, but honestly I’m not sure what will happen to me.”
“There are still a lot of question marks that we must resolve,” said Assita Kanko, a Flemish MEP from the European Conservatives and Reformists. “We stayed in Brussels for so long … This only confirms the fact that we can easily work in Brussels and that we don’t need to go to Strasbourg.”
Those who will go to Strasbourg in June also grumbled that they might spend hours on a train, only to sit in an office and follow group meetings online. “The session will be mostly virtual, so why do we do all this if in the end we will sit in our offices?” the EPP official wondered.
German MEP Andreas Schwab plans to go to Strasbourg in June simply because Strasbourg “is the official institution.”
“But if we do it, we must do it seriously,” he added.