2020 vision: A year in review

The year 2020 will go down in history as one of the most challenging in generations. Lorna Hutchinson looks back on an extraordinary twelve months.
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By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

23 Dec 2020

January

The year kicks off on a celebratory note, as Finland, Austria and Sweden celebrate 25 years of EU membership, when they became the 13th, 14th and 15th Member States of the EU following referendums in each of the states prior to accession.

Meanwhile, Brexit is at the forefront of many people’s minds as the 31 January deadline when the UK is due to leave the EU looms ever closer. EU citizens living and working in the UK as well as citizens’ rights groups and the European Parliament’s political groups express their growing concern over the impact that Britain’s exit from the bloc will have on their lives and legal status.

On January 30, Parliament bids an emotional farewell to UK deputies to the strains of Robert Burns’ Auld Lang Syne and midnight on January 31, “Brexit Day”, marks the end of the UK’s 47 years of EU membership.

On January 30, Parliament bids an emotional farewell to UK deputies to the strains of Robert Burns’ Auld Lang Syne and midnight on January 31, “Brexit Day”, marks the end of the UK’s 47 years of EU membership

Elsewhere, in Wuhan, Central China, a virus named COVID-19 has begun claiming lives and on January 23 citizens are forced into strict lockdown.

February

With the UK now in an 11-month transition period, during which it will continue to abide by the EU’s rules while officials in London and Brussels attempt to thrash out the terms of a future relationship, EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warns of a Brexit “cliff edge” unless the trade talks between the two sides are conducted in a spirit of mutual respect.

The UK’s exit from the EU also triggers some key changes in the way the European Parliament is set up. As a third country, the UK will no longer be represented at EU level, so Parliament is now composed of 705 seats instead of 751.

In other news, the EU and Member States are at loggerheads over the long-term budget, with the Commission asking for €1.135 trillion over seven years, while Member States insist that the total budget size should be €1.095 trillion.

March

This is the month when everything changes. March kicks off with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) announcing that the Coronavirus risk level in Europe has risen from moderate to high.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen says that the bloc has a “comprehensive approach” to containing the virus, of which there are already 2,100 cases in 18 Member States and 38 fatalities.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg visits the European Parliament, telling MEPs that global warming is like “a house which is on fire” but that the fire brigade has not yet been called to put out the blaze.

The Commission unveils its Gender Equality Strategy and celebrates the first 100 days of the von der Leyen Commission.

The Strasbourg plenary is moved to Brussels on Coronavirus concerns, the Commission announces a €37 billion Coronavirus investment initiative to provide liquidity to the European economy as it tackles the crisis, and lockdowns enter into force across many Member States as Europe becomes the new Coronavirus epicentre.

April

With millions of workers across Europe now confined to their homes amid widespread lockdowns, remote working becomes “the new normal.” MEPs condemn Hungary over its “lockdown of democracy” after Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s coalition passed an emergency bill in parliament that allows the government to rule by decree indefinitely during a state of emergency over the Coronavirus outbreak.

With millions of workers across Europe now confined to their homes amid widespread lockdowns, remote working becomes “the new normal”

The EU calls for a ramp-up in production on vital medical equipment as Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton warns EU Member States to remove any barriers to the free movement of medical supplies.

Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is moved to an intensive care unit as his Coronavirus symptoms worsen. Evelyn Regner, chair of Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee, joins others in urging the EU and Member States to increase support for the growing number of domestic violence victims during the COVID-19 crisis.

As EU leaders sign off on a €540bn Coronavirus rescue scheme, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen offers a “heartfelt apology” for the EU’s initial response to the Coronavirus crisis, which has come under fire for being too slow.

May

In early May, the Commission raises €7.4 billion in pledges from world leaders in the online “Coronavirus Global Response” pledging event, aimed at gathering significant funding to ensure the development and deployment of diagnostics, treatments and vaccines against COVID-19.

Meanwhile the Conference on the Future of Europe remains in limbo - the two-year event was supposed to launch on May 9, Europe Day, but has been postponed due to the ongoing Coronavirus crisis.

In late May, the Commission unveils its long-awaited Biodiversity and Farm to Fork strategies, both key elements of the European Green Deal.

As the month draws to a close, the Commission unveils its €750bn Coronavirus recovery fund - dubbed “Next generation EU” - designed to help Europe’s economies and societies recover from the Coronavirus pandemic.

June

The European Parliament announces at the beginning of June that it has distributed some 200,000 meals to the needy during the Coronavirus crisis. During the crisis, Parliament has also provided shelter for around 100 “vulnerable women” in one of its Brussels premises.

Senior EU political figures and MEPs condemn the killing of 46-year-old George Floyd, who died of asphyxia during his arrest by police in Minneapolis

After months of relative lull in the Brexit news cycle as the Coronavirus pandemic dominates the headlines, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier warns the UK in early June that Brexit talks are approaching the “moment of truth.”

Barnier accuses the UK of “backtracking on its commitments”, saying the two sides remain “very far” apart. In other news, senior EU political figures and MEPs condemn the killing of 46-year-old George Floyd, who died of asphyxia during his arrest by police in Minneapolis.

Meanwhile, European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde tells Europe to brace for an economic crisis of “unprecedented scale” during a meeting of Parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee. At the end of the month, intensified Brexit talks kick off with the first face-to-face meetings since the COVID-19 outbreak.

July

The beginning of July sees Germany take over the rotating EU Council presidency from Croatia against a backdrop of crises, including the Coronavirus pandemic, Brexit and the still-unapproved long-term EU budget.

Brexit updates continue to provide a gloomy outlook as Michel Barnier says “serious divergences remain” in the negotiations. Meanwhile, the names of the MEPs who will sit on Parliament’s new committees are announced.

Parliament has set up a subcommittee on taxation, three special committees - one on cancer, another on artificial intelligence and a third on foreign interference - and a committee of inquiry on animal transport.

Later in the month, EU leaders thrash out a deal on the Coronavirus recovery fund and long-term budget after a marathon five-day summit. A subsequent debate in Parliament sees MEPs welcome the €750bn recovery plan but voice fierce opposition to cuts to the budget.

EU leaders thrash out a deal on the Coronavirus recovery fund and long-term budget after a marathon five-day summit. A subsequent debate in Parliament sees MEPs welcome the €750bn recovery plan but voice fierce opposition to cuts to the budget

At the end of the month, Poland announces its plan to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention - the Council of Europe’s landmark Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence.

August

August begins on a sad note as Parliament mourns the loss of former UK Socialist MEP and Nobel Peace Prize laureate John Hume, who passes away after a short illness aged 83.

The EU rallies to support Lebanon, activates its Civil Protection Mechanism and pledges €63m in aid after a huge blast devastates the port area of the capital Beirut.

Meanwhile in Belarus, incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko wins a landslide reelection victory after bloody clashes between riot police and thousands of demonstrators protesting that the poll was rigged. EU leaders subsequently reject and condemn the presidential result.

In late August, Michel Barnier says that Brexit talks are “going backwards,” adding that the UK is showing “no willingness” to take the EU’s priorities on board.

At the end of August, EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan quits his post over the so-called “Golfgate” scandal, which saw Hogan breach Coronavirus regulations in his native Ireland

At the end of August, EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan quits his post over the so-called “Golfgate” scandal, which saw Hogan breach Coronavirus regulations in his native Ireland.

September

“La rentrée” kicks off with speculation abound as to who will replace Phil Hogan as Ireland’s Commissioner. Firmly in the frame is Parliament Vice-President, EPP member Mairead McGuinness. The speculation quickly becomes fact with McGuinness’ appointment, which is widely welcomed, though Ireland loses the coveted trade portfolio in favour of the financial services portfolio.

Meanwhile, a devastating blaze tears through the Moria migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, putting asylum and migration firmly back on the EU agenda.

Halfway through the month, Ursula von der Leyen delivers her maiden State of the European Union address - a marathon speech running for more than an hour, in which she announces a series of ground-breaking new proposals and addresses some of the Union’s most sensitive issues.

Equality rights are firmly on the agenda in September, as the EU unveils its long-awaited action plan to tackle racism, while MEPs stage a protest, dressed in all the colours of the rainbow, to show their solidarity with the Polish LGBTI community.

At the end of the month, the EU unveils its new Migration Pact, the flagship initiative to create a comprehensive plan for managing migration.

October

The month begins with the news that Greens/EFA deputy and IMCO Committee Chair Petra De Sutter is leaving Parliament to become the Belgian Deputy Prime Minister in the new Vivaldi coalition government.

Meanwhile, the Commission launches infringement proceedings against the UK over its controversial Internal Market Bill, which sparked outrage as it overrides the Withdrawal Agreement, the deal painstakingly thrashed out by the two sides over the last two years.

The Commission launches infringement proceedings against the UK over its controversial Internal Market Bill, which sparked outrage as it overrides the Withdrawal Agreement, the deal painstakingly thrashed out by the two sides over the last two years

In climate news, Parliament votes in favour of a CO2 reduction target of 60 percent by 2030. A Brexit deadlock which threatens to derail negotiations for good comes to an end after an impassioned speech by Michel Barnier in plenary in late October, which appears to thaw the frosty relations between the two sides and pave the way for “intensive” negotiations to resume.

The month draws to a close with the news that the Polish Constitutional Court has imposed a near-total ban on abortion. The draconian move sparks protests in cities across the country and MEPs express outrage at the flagrant human rights violation taking place in an EU Member State.

November

The United States is firmly on the mind of most European policymakers in early November as Americans head to the polls to elect their 46th President. The protracted election has many spectators on the edge of their seats, as the race turns out to be much tighter than expected, but after a marathon four days of painstaking vote counting, a win in the key battleground state of Pennsylvania finally tips the scales in favour of Joe Biden.

Back in Brussels, the Commission presents its first-ever LGBTIQ equality strategy and Hungary and Poland throw a spanner in the works of the EU long-term budget and recovery package, refusing to back them and plunging the bloc into a fresh crisis.

December

The final month of 2020 dawns with the news that the UK has become the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech Coronavirus vaccine, paving the way for mass vaccination.

In other news, Hungarian Fidesz MEP József Szájer admits he was among those arrested at a lockdown-busting party in Brussels when police raided a bar in the centre of the city, well known locally as a gay area. Szájer, who resigned after the incident, is understood to have been shinnying down a drainpipe with bloodied hands and narcotics in his backpack when he was detained by police. MEPs say the Szájer case highlights the hypocrisy of the anti-LGBTI policies of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party.

Hungarian Fidesz MEP József Szájer admits he was among those arrested at a lockdown-busting party in Brussels when police raided a bar in the centre of the city, well known locally as a gay area

Meanwhile, the EU strikes a compromise agreement with Hungary and Poland over the next long-term budget and the Commission unveils its Digital Services and Digital Markets acts. As we go to print, yet another - apparently final - deadline has been imposed on the seemingly never-ending Brexit negotiations, as Parliament insists that talks are definitively wrapped up on December 20, in order to give the House time to scrutinise any deal and ratify it.

Will a deal actually materialise? Only time will tell. But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that uncertainty is the only certainty.

Read the most recent articles written by Lorna Hutchinson - Former MEP Kaja Kallas to become Estonia’s first female prime minister

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