Sassoli set to return to Parliament amid revolt over in-person mandate

European Parliament President David Sassoli is finally expected to formally return to his post next week after a months-long illness. But instead of a welcome parade, he’ll immediately face a mounting insurrection over his decision to force in-person attendance.

With the pandemic roaring back across the Continent, MEPs are vocally protesting the requirement for them to travel to Parliament’s Strasbourg home next week for a full plenary session. As of Wednesday, roughly 10 petitions questioning the decision were circulating among lawmakers, gathering scores of signatures. And in recent days, more than 80 MEPs and employees have tested positive for COVID-19, starkly illustrating the potential ramifications of bringing together over 1,000 people in Strasbourg.

To put it lightly, it all means the upcoming gathering promises to be contentious, just as Sassoli plans to fully resumes his presidential position after just over two months spent recuperating from a crippling bout of pneumonia.

At issue is not just how the Parliament will handle this session, but all its upcoming work during what promises to be a COVID-infused winter — already several countries have started clamping back down. One of the petitions circulating, drafted by two senior MEPs, called on Sassoli to “go back to the special regime,” a blend of traditional in-person work with remote participation. In just 24 hours, it collected 179 signatures — more than a quarter of the Parliament.

“The COVID situation is worsening in all member states,” German MEPs Angelika Niebler and Daniel Caspary wrote in an email to Sassoli. “We are concerned about having 705 Members voting in presence in Plenary next week.”

Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, Sassoli has taken drastic measures to curb the spread of the virus within the Parliament, including canceling plenary sessions in Strasbourg and most of the Parliament’s in-person meetings. But with the easing of lockdowns, vaccine rollout and receding case numbers over the summer, Parliament returned to Strasbourg in June under a hybrid format — there was some in-person interaction but much of the action took place online. MEPs voted in their offices, attended group meetings online and negotiated amendments on their computers.

Earlier this month, the Parliament’s hybrid system ended abruptly when Sassoli decided Parliament could “return to business as usual” in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg — the Parliament’s three places of work — while using a COVID passport system, face mask mandate and body temperature checks. Last week, a total of 580 MEPs participated in person in the parliament’s mini-plenary in Brussels.

The Parliament had hoped to maintain the same rules for next week’s full session in Strasbourg, despite the surge of COVID cases across Europe, including in Belgium. The EU’s home on Wednesday tightened the country’s COVID restrictions, including new telework requirements.

Parliament has also not been immune from the pandemic’s resurgence. Parliament officials say four people who worked in the legislative body’s Brussels building have recently tested positive, while more than 80 others got COVID through outside connections. 

“And since then, the number is growing,” one official said.

Officially, Parliament is standing by its decision.

“The pandemic situation is constantly carefully monitored,” said a Parliament spokesperson. “We are satisfied that we have been able to move towards a situation that is closer to normal work of the Parliament without reducing the health guarantees for all those who work in the EP.”

But the MEP fury, which started last week during the mini-plenary in Brussels, has only intensified. Many lawmakers complain the new rules requiring in-person attendance in plenary sessions and other Parliament meetings put 705 MEPs and their staff at risk, given the pandemic’s current phase.

Another Parliament official called next week’s plenary “the biggest gathering of any EU institution ever since the first lockdowns in 2020,” adding that the Strasbourg hemicycle does not allow for physical distancing.

Niebler and Caspary, the German MEPs, echoed the concern in the email to Sassoli. 

“Taking into account the actual pandemic situation we want to avoid having so many colleagues and staff sitting together for such a long time without any distances,” they wrote.

The controversy has spilled over into the various political groups within Parliament. On Wednesday, French MEP Stéphane Séjourné, leader of the liberal Renew Europe group, was expected to consult all group members on their plans for next week.

“All over Europe, the numbers are exploding and just as we are going into the fourth wave, the Parliament is giving up all precautions and making MEPs sit elbow to elbow … it’s ludicrous,” said Daniel Freund, a German MEP from the Greens.

“There are plenty of opportunities for hybrid functioning,” he added. “Now all the progress we have made in modernizing the Parliament are out of the window.”

Several Parliament officials even argued Sassoli may have canceled Thursday’s regular “Conference of Presidents” meeting — a standing get-together of Sassoli and the Parliament’s political group leaders — in order to avoid MEP’s wrath over the issue.

But a spokesperson for Sassoli said the meeting was simply canceled because “there was little to decide, and the little we have to decide can go through a written procedure.” 

Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.

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