France was desperate for the European Parliament to return to Strasbourg and on Monday it finally got its wish — well, kind of.
Parliament President David Sassoli gave a 30-minute address in the hemicycle of the Parliament’s Strasbourg building and expressed his “emotion” at being back in the French city. Except there were hardly any other MEPs there and he finished his speech by saying “and now, let’s pause here from Strasbourg and continue our plenary … from the Brussels seat,” before heading back to the Belgian capital.
This awkward gesture was made largely to please French President Emmanuel Macron, who last month expressed frustration at Sassoli’s decision to cancel numerous plenary sessions in Strasbourg due to the coronavirus and urged him to promptly resume monthly visits to the Alsatian city, which is the Parliament’s official seat.
Tensions with France increased further after Clément Beaune, France’s EU affairs minister, sent a letter to Sassoli in which he also expressed “great concern” at the Parliament’s intention to renovate its main building in Brussels at a cost of around €500 million.
On Monday, Sassoli met with Beaune and Jeanne Barseghian, the Strasbourg mayor, but he did not announce any resumption of activity in Strasbourg. Instead, Sassoli told reporters on his way into the building that he couldn’t stay long because the Parliament had “very important tasks” to carry out this week in Brussels, including a vote on the EU’s long-term budget and on the newly-agreed mechanism to tie EU funds to the rule of law, as well as a debate on the ongoing Brexit negotiations.
MEPs will now spend the next few days holding their usual coronavirus-style plenary in Brussels, with a small number of lawmakers debating in person and votes cast online.
“We will come back to Strasbourg soon,” Sassoli told reporters before his opening speech, adding that he and Macron would be in Strasbourg on February 2 to pay tribute to former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who died earlier this month (there was also a minute of silence to commemorate him). “We hope that the COVID-19 will loosen its grip … and that soon we will come back to normality … This is our house, it is written as such in the treaties, it is written as such in the history of the European Union.”
Monday’s trip, however, was less of a regular Strasbourg production and more of a mise en scène.
Sassoli flew to Strasbourg from Rome without his chief of staff. His opening address was watched in person by just a handful of MEPs who travelled to Strasbourg but could neither vote in person nor debate from there because of coronavirus restrictions. The Parliament’s bars and restaurants were closed, and the number of staff present was cut back to a minimum.
The Parliament president used his half an hour to check off the five-year anniversary of the Paris climate agreement, the unblocking of the budget negotiations by EU leaders last week, and the 25th anniversary of the Dayton accords that brought peace to Bosnia. He also announced that the Parliament had taken note of the resignation of Hungarian MEP József Szájer, who was arrested earlier this month after being caught at a lockdown “orgy.”
Dita Charanzová, a senior Czech MEP who sat in the hemicycle, described the session as “sad and empty” and she was traveling back to Brussels the same day.
The only MEPs who praised Sassoli’s decision to open the plenary in Strasbourg were — unsurprisingly — French.
Even Virginie Joron, a Euroskeptic MEP from the far right National Rally, thanked Sassoli for “honoring us” and urged him to “quickly rebalance the situation.”