Sassoli under fire over ‘mini plenary’ amid rising Coronavirus concerns

Parliament President David Sassoli decided to keep MEPs and parliamentary staff in Brussels for a “mini plenary” this week despite increasing fears over the rapid spread of the Coronavirus.
credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

11 Mar 2020

After the cancellation of Parliament’s usual monthly plenary in Strasbourg in favour of a “mini plenary” in Brussels, some MEPs have criticised both the decision to hold the plenary and keep MEPs in Brussels.

On Monday evening and Tuesday, debates were held in the Parliament on the Coronavirus as well as other issues, including the migrant crisis on the Greek/Turkish border and the EU budget.

Parliament’s President David Sassoli has sanctioned a raft of restrictive measures designed to help halt the spread of the disease on parliamentary premises both in Brussels and Strasbourg.

But, despite this, Sassoli still came under fire from some MEPs in Tuesday’s debate.


Roman Haider, an Austrian member, said, “We MEPs have been told to keep our distance from each other at the moment but nonetheless we are still packed onto buses to get to this Parliament.”

Haider, a member from the Identity and Democracy group, said, “Sassoli has failed on this and I hope now that national parliaments will deal better with this.”

Slovakian MEP Lucia Duris Nicholsonova said, “What has happened here this week is irresponsible. Today, we have been forced to sit in one room, this chamber, and discuss the corona virus. This is irresponsible.”

“By being asked to come to Parliament we MEPs have also exposed everyone who works here, from assistants to cleaning and security staff, to a big risk – and all just because MEPs have to be here,” she added.

Italian deputy Mara Bizzotto, of the Identity and Democracy group, criticised the EU’s reaction, saying, “The EU should have blocked flights immediately. It did not do so and we are now paying the consequences.”

Parliament’s vice president, Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness, who chaired the session, leapt to the defence of Sassoli, telling MEPs, “This is a rapidly-evolving situation and David Sassoli has been acting strictly on medical advice.”

"We MEPs have been told to keep our distance from each other at the moment but nonetheless we are still packed onto buses to get to this Parliament" Roman Haider MEP

Sassoli was not available to respond directly to the criticism of him from some MEPs but, in a statement, issued an update of Parliament’s measures to protect against the spread of COVID-19, saying this was “based on the latest situation in Italy.”

Sassoli, himself an Italian MEP, indicated he would be working from his home in Brussels for the next two weeks.

He said, “The new advice introduced by the Italian government extends the protected area to the whole national territory. This has important consequences for the behaviour of Italian MEPs. For this reason, I have decided after having been in Italy over the last weekend, as a precaution, to follow the indicated measures and to exercise my function as President from my home in Brussels in compliance with the 14 days indicated by the health protocol.”

He added, “COVID-19 obliges everyone to be responsible and to be cautious. It is a delicate moment for all of us.”

“Parliament will continue to work to exercise its duties. No virus can block democracy.”

Separately, he despatched guidance notes to MEPs and staff on how to deal with the virus.

The notes, seen by this website, state that it is “appropriate to deny access to the buildings of parliament to persons who have been in known contact with a person infected by COVID-19.”

“The situation has further evolved over the last days, given in particular the appearance of further significant clusters and the rise in number of infection cases in regions across the EU.”

"What has happened here this week is irresponsible. Today, we have been forced to sit in one room, this chamber, and discuss the Coronavirus. This is irresponsible" Lucia Duris Nicholsonova MEP

Sassoli, who did not say if he has been tested for the virus, noted the closure of schools and museums, restriction of sporting events and regional quarantines in Italy and elsewhere.

The note says, “Information technology tools should, to the extent possible, replace physical meetings and thus contribute to enabling Parliament to exercise its core functions.”

It goes on to say that the assembly’s Secretary-General “shall take the measures necessary to enable remote participation to meetings of Parliament's governing bodies, committees and the plenary, without prejudice to decisions of Parliament’s bureau on matters relating to the conduct of sittings.”

The paper also warns that any violation will be regarded as “compromising the maintenance of security and order and give rise to penalties that might be applicable.”

In relation to any meetings taking place in Parliament in the foreseeable future, it adds, “The respective (committee) chair shall ensure to the extent possible that attendees do not approach each other closer than one meter when seated; attendees shall avoid direct physical contact such as handshakes and persons showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as sneezing, running nose or cough shall not attend the meeting.”

The House of European History, the Parlamentarium and the Europa Experience sites will remain closed for the time being and these and all other parliamentary restrictions, it says, will remain in force until 30 March.

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