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View from Brussels: Covid’s EU-impact emerges

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The coronavirus pandemic is already changing the way the EU does its day-to-day business. For better or for worse.

How substantially the pandemic affects areas like economic, climate and transport policy will not become fully clear until the threat of lockdowns are far behind us and recovery funds start flowing in earnest.

But in Brussels, where the majority of EU officials are based, it is already having a big impact. The European Commission announced this week it will close half of its office by the end of the decade.

The reason? Remote work suited employees during the worst of the pandemic and the EU executive has smelled an opportunity to go a bit greener, digitalise and save a bit of cash to boot.

EU budget chief Johannes Hahn revealed on Tuesday (25 May) that the Commission will close 25 of its 50 offices in the Belgian capital and merge departments together in the lead-up to 2030.

“Like all public and private organisations, we are now looking at the most useful balance between office and home working for the longer term. It’s the new norm,” the Austrian official said, adding that more than 90 per cent of staff are in favour of the decision.

The idea is that officials will be able to telework for two or three days every week, which will undoubtedly be popular among a workforce that hails from every corner of the 27-country-strong union.

Even though the number of buildings will be halved, the amount of actual office space will only decrease by about a quarter.

“What we intend to do, for the first time, is to grow directorates-general of the same policy area together in one premise, so we will have less but bigger premises,” Hahn explained.

The current Commission – which took office in 2019 – is trying to make decisions that do not originate from isolated departments or ‘silos’ in EU-speak, given the fact that policies like the Green Deal affect almost every sector.

At the moment, the Commission’s climate, energy and transport departments, for example, have a reputation for not communicating enough and pursuing their own agendas. This new real-estate strategy could put a stop to that disjointed management.

Brussels itself may also feel the benefit. Long maligned for turning a once vibrant quarter of the capital into a glass and concrete ghost town (particularly on weekends), the EU institutions may help breathe new life into the city’s northern district.

In the 1960s and 1970s, city authorities demolished vast swathes of residential area to build office buildings as part of plans to create a new business district. It largely failed to attract tenants and is now a mostly empty quarter.

The Commission is reportedly looking at moving into the area in the coming years, taking advantage of the cheaper rents and doing a fair bit to boost its relationship with the city. Hahn refused to comment at this stage, conscious of the impact such an announcement might have on property prices.

The Commission’s plan to cut its carbon footprint and make its employees happier by allowing them a better work-life balance in a post-pandemic world might be counterbalanced by the European Parliament’s plans for its next big meeting in June.

MEPs traditionally meet once a month in the French city of Strasbourg, because the EU’s treaty guarantees the Alsace capital’s status as the host of the Parliament. During the pandemic, that monthly trip has been axed.

It is a sore point for MEPs, most of whom dislike the regular slog to Strasbourg and are aware of the negative PR it generates. They may have to return in June, because the Parliament’s leadership has decided it is time for it to come back on the calendar.

But because travel restrictions are still in place in France and infections are not yet fully under control due to mainland Europe’s slower vaccination pace, MEPs and their assistants have been advised to travel in individual cars to Strasbourg.

Official advice sent by the Parliament to its members says that this will allow those making the trip to bypass French border checks – which are not in place on the motorways that link it to Belgium and other neighbouring countries – but quarantine and testing on return will still be a necessity.

A petition is currently going around the inboxes of MEPs demanding that the Parliament’s president rethink the decision to go back to Strasbourg until everybody has had the chance to get vaccinated. Enough pressure might force a change of tactics.

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