European Parliament President David Sassoli has announced that next week’s plenary will go ahead as planned but will take place in Brussels instead of Strasbourg.
“I have received an updated report from the European Parliament’s Medical Service on the evolution of COVID-19 which states that the health risks are considered to be significantly higher if Parliament’s plenary session next week takes place in Strasbourg,” Sassoli said in a statement.
“On the basis of this evaluation, due to force majeure, I decided that the necessary security conditions are not in place for the usual transfer of Parliament to Strasbourg for the plenary session next week.”
“I have informed the French authorities and have thanked them for their collaboration in the past days. Parliament undertakes to reschedule a plenary session in Strasbourg in accordance with the Treaties,” he added.
Speaking at a pre-session briefing in Parliament on Friday morning, Utta Tuttlies, a spokesperson for the S&D Group, told reporters, “We welcome this decision to meet for the plenary in Brussels. It the President who contacted the French, so it is up to him, but we support him in this. Our group leader also supports this.”
The comments were endorsed by Michael Strauss, of the ECR group, who said, “We strongly opposed going to Strasbourg so this is welcome.”
Pedro López, spokesman for the EPP, said, “The majority of MEPs said to Sassoli that they wanted this action taken. Most would prefer to be in Brussels next week but they left the decision to Sassoli.”
"Next week's plenary session will exceptionally be held in Brussels due to force majeure" David Sassoli, European Parliament President
He added, “It seems that today the French will raise the risk level in the country for the Coronavirus, so maybe it was not wise to move up to 6,000 people to Strasbourg.”
David Gundy, of the GUE/NGL group, said, “We also support this but the Coronavirus issue also highlights the need for improvements to our medical systems.”
Jaume Duch, Parliament’s spokesman, said, “This decision, I stress, is based on the assessment of our medical service and it means that there will now be an extra plenary in Strasbourg later on this year.”
Earlier on Thursday the European Commission met with members of Parliament’s Environment and Public Health Committee to discuss the COVID-19 outbreak after it emerged on Wednesday that the first Coronavirus case had struck the EU institutions.
An official at the general secretariat of the EU Council tested positive for the COVID-19 virus following local transmission in Belgium.
A senior Commission representative told MEPs that the virus had spread extensively but that the EU “still remains in a containment phase.”
"The majority of MEPs said to Sassoli that they wanted this action taken" EPP spokesman
Addressing the committee, he said that the number of confirmed cases in Europe has soared from 44 in mid-February to 3,400 with most being in Italy with 2,500. There are 70 countries affected, he said, with most being in North Korea, China, Italy and Iran.
He explained that the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) runs daily risk assessments and has deemed the risk in the EU as ‘moderate to high.’
“Overall, the EU still remains in a containment phase which means identification and controlling clusters. We are also preparing for a worst-case scenario and a larger number of patients, including the most vulnerable, like the elderly and people with chronic conditions. We are also need to talk about adequate funding,” the Commission representative said.
“Any measures should be proportionate and scientifically sound but put in place rapidly. We also have to deal with fake news and misinformation which is circulating about this virus,” he said.
“We cannot exclude further expansion of the outbreak, but I stress the need for coordination and solid measures being taken.”
"We welcome this decision to meet for the plenary in Brussels. It the President who contacted the French, so it is up to him, but we support him in this" S&D Group spokesperson
Numerous events in Brussels and elsewhere have been cancelled amid a sharp spike in cases. These include a conference on the International Postal Service, originally scheduled for Tuesday 24 March.
A spokesman for the organisers said, “It has been called off given the restrictive measures taken by the Commission due to the Coronavirus.”
Some events have gone ahead including a major business summit in Brussels on Thursday, albeit with a much smaller turnout than expected.