Eerie Brussels edges back towards rubbing elbows and bashing heads

Europe Letter: Weary of online chat, capital with high death rate is back in the flesh

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen observes a minute of silence along with European Parliament members in honour of George Floyd. Photograph: Francisco Seco

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen observes a minute of silence along with European Parliament members in honour of George Floyd. Photograph: Francisco Seco

 

Brussels is usually a carousel of meetings. Committees in the European Parliament pore over draft laws. Diplomats brief journalists in stuffy conference rooms. A motley cast of lobbyists, politicians, media people and technocrats gossip over coffees, lunches and evening drinks.

The pandemic abruptly halted this activity. Press conferences were moved online, and now feature cameos by impatient children and banal views of journalists’ living rooms. 

Most employees of the European institutions were sent to work from home. A select few – who inevitably came to consider themselves an elite – were chosen to continue attending the office, but were divided into shifts to ensure as few contacts as possible. 

Members of the European Parliament were scattered across the continent when the shutdown began, and many continue to vote and make speeches remotely, as illustrated rather graphically earlier this month by Luke Ming Flanagan’s scantily clad appearance in a committee debate from his Roscommon bedroom.

On Monday, Belgium opened its borders, ending restrictions on non-essential travel to the country that had seen its smaller border roads blocked with fencing, mounds of earth and concrete blocks. The European Commission wanted all countries in the Schengen area to do likewise, in concert, but the reality is a patchwork across the continent.

High-risk places

Tourist-friendly Italy and Greece have opened up. Denmark and Hungary remain largely closed. Many countries have specific restrictions or quarantine obligations on arrivals from places deemed high-risk, such as Sweden or the United Kingdom.

Though the border checks are gone, Brussels remains quieter than the norm. Restaurants and bars have reopened, many of them transformed by ad-hoc measures to help reduce transmission, like online menus or plexiglas shields between tables. Many eateries have conquered the pavements with seated terraces, reclaiming territory from a car-choked city. Tentative steps have been made to carve out space for cycling too.

Watery alcoholic hand sanitiser is ubiquitous at the entrance of shops. It smells like bad decisions at a teenage disco. Much of it is brewed by local distilleries, which converted their production in response to a continent-wide shortage as the pandemic took hold. Rubbens, a distiller of gin since 1817, now makes twice as much sanitiser as drinking alcohol each week. Staff who once welcomed visitors to a distillery restaurant have been shifted on to the busy production line.

Face masks are common: they are “strongly recommended” in public and mandatory on public transport. Supermarkets sell packs of 50 disposable masks for €31.50. Disposable gloves are highly in demand: on a recent visit to Carrefour, purchases were rationed to just one box per customer.

At night, many apartment windows remain dark: the city’s weekly commuters have yet to all make a return. It’s possible that many plan not to come back until after the traditional summer period, when the city usually empties out anyway.

Coffee meetings

But a mysterious change occurred this week. Without apparent co-ordination, various institutions and social groups separately and spontaneously decided that now is the time to resume in-person meetings. 

I received no fewer than five invitations to in-person, off-the-record briefings this week, and several queries about meeting for coffee, after almost three months of strictly remote reporting. On Friday, the prime ministers and presidents of the EU member states will gather to discuss a major finance deal. The conference is to be held over video for their safety – naturally – but nevertheless some embassies have decided that some press events must be in person.

Coronavirus spreads through the air and research indicates that confined spaces where groups gather to talk, sing or shout together are ideal for passing on the disease. I’m familiar with the ill-ventilated and cramped conference rooms in which these briefing events are usually held and regard the prospect of attending one with dread. (The phrase “sandwiches will be served” on one embassy invitation was particularly horrifying.) 

Belgium just fought off one of the world’s highest death rates. I last met family or friends in February. Gathering to talk in a crowded room at an event that could just as easily be held digitally seems a rather pointless way to gamble with the R value.

Physical events

But not everyone feels the same way. Some people have been homeschooling their children and are gleeful at the chance of escape and adult conversation. When one fellow journalist revealed on a Brussels chat group that she had been invited to an in-person briefing, another replied “Lucky you!”

Some institutions are clearly eager for a return of in-person meetings. The Brexit talks, which moved online after some negotiators caught the virus and had to quarantine, are pencilled in as physical events in Brussels and London from the end of the month. The informal sideline chats and wind-down drinks are viewed as essential to reach compromise.

If possible, the EU leaders hope to meet in person next month too. The differences in positions on borrowing and spending are viewed as too large to resolve at a pixelated remove: they want to rub elbows and bash heads.

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