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FRANCE WANTS MEPs IN STRASBOURG: France insists Strasbourg is a safe place to work from, and wants the European Parliament to hold its September plenary at its seat, as per the EU Treaty. “An extremely strict health protocol has been put in place by French authorities in cooperation with the European Parliament. Everything is done so that the plenary session in September can take place in good conditions,” France’s Europe Minister Clément Beaune said on Sunday.
Signal for normality: “The health situation in Strasbourg is not worse than in Brussels. We take this very seriously, but [we must] live with the virus and return to as normal a functioning of the institutions as possible, ie through the European Parliament meeting in Strasbourg,” Beaune said. That would have come as a disappointment to those in Parliament who were hoping French authorities wouldn’t be keen on having hundreds of people coming to Strasbourg from all over the Continent for the plenary (see Playbook’s reporting on this here).
Precautions: The health measures foreseen by the French side include ensuring anyone with symptoms is repatriated, isolated or hospitalized as appropriate, and every exposed person is tested within 24 hours.
ALSO STILL TRAVELING: Top EU officials including Charles Michel and the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell, David Herszenhorn reports.
GOING, NOT GOING … GOING? This month’s planned Strasbourg plenary is going ahead, the European Parliament’s administration told staffers — at least for now. “Please make sure you finalise your preparations / organisation / bookings for Strasbourg week and guide your staff to do so accordingly,” wrote the EPP group’s Secretary-General Simon Busuttil in an internal email, obtained by Playbook. He passed on information received during a meeting with Parliament’s chief civil servant, Secretary-General Klaus Welle.
Background: Before the summer, Parliament decided to hold its September plenary in Strasburg, despite a certain degree of risk. The EU Treaties stipulate Parliament’s presence in France, and according to three Parliament officials, President David Sassoli intends to honor them, as well as the commitment taken to return to normality if and when possible. “For Sassoli, this decision is still valid and should be followed through,” Busuttil wrote.
Just saying! Remember Phil Hogan, the ex-trade commissioner, who very recently had to resign for what some might say was less risky behavior?
What a difference a few weeks make: “What has changed is that Brussels is now a red zone and Strasbourg an orange zone,” Busuttil’s email reads. And sure, between the two, Strasbourg may statistically be the safer place. But is it really such a good idea to increase, via the presence of hundreds of people coming from a red zone, the risk to the people of Strasbourg? That’s an argument against the traveling circus raised by S&D leader Iratxe García in a meeting with her group’s bureau, according to two people in the room, who also said the bureau broadly agreed it would be better not to go.
Next steps: A formal and final decision by Parliament itself will need to be taken next week, in the conference of all group leaders. But perhaps French authorities will remove the burden of making that decision from Parliament, and reject all those visitors from Brussels, for once? That’s the hope of those in Parliament who are critical of the decision, García included — she’s waiting for a French ruling before deciding whether to intervene and urge Parliament to reverse course.
Further reading: Maïa de La Baume looks into Parliament’s Strasbourg debate.
CORONA COORDINATION LATEST: EU ambassadors on Wednesday had a “good and important” exchange for more than two hours on possible closer coordination of travel rules and restrictions in the EU, according to a diplomat familiar with the debate — which resulted in a green light for work to continue. The aim is to focus “initially on comparability of epidemiological data and on communications,” the diplomat said, adding that the recommendations the Commission announces “will be taken into account” — once they materialize.
JUST HOW BAD WILL THE CORONA ECONOMY GET? A grim situation is getting grimmer, report POLITICO’s financial services gurus in this detailed analysis.
STRASBOURG SUSPENSE: Look, some MEPs just don’t want to travel to France, regardless of any Treaty-induced obligation. The Socialist & Democrats group is now being vocal on its stance that it’s not a good idea to hold the plenary planned for next week at Parliament’s Strasbourg seat. “By now it seems pretty obvious that holding the plenary in Strasbourg adds unnecessary health risks both for the city and for members and staff of the Parliament,” group leader Iratxe García told Playbook.
What’s next: “The French authorities should acknowledge that by Thursday,” García said, referring to the date of a meeting of group chairs, the Conference of Presidents (CoP), which will formally decide whether to make the trip. If the competent authorities in France “don’t take responsibility I will insist that the Parliament takes responsibility and postpones its plenary meetings in Strasbourg until such time that the pandemic risk levels allow for it,” García added.
Going, not going, going … Some MEPs would love to go to Strasbourg — whether for a change of scenery after months of being stuck in one place, because they reckon their physical presence makes a difference, or because there’s a view that the single-seat-in-Brussels faction is getting stronger and stronger. Others, in conversations with Playbook, cited practicalities and responsibilities of an EU institution as a reason for not going, in times when ordinary people are bluntly discouraged from traveling by their governments. More, and the backstory, here and here.
Make up your minds: Parliament officials may have their own views too — but mainly they want to know whether they need to organize the big move under these special corona circumstances. And they’d rather have more prep time than the three days between Thursday’s CoP meeting and Monday’s opening of the session.