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 will affect areas such as economic, climate and transport policies will only become fully apparent when the threat of lockdowns is well behind us and recovery funds start to flow in earnest.
But in Brussels, where most of the EU officials are based, it is already making a big impact. The European Commission announced this week that it will close half of its office by the end of the decade.
The reason? Remote working suited workers during the worst pandemic and the EU executive has smelled an opportunity to go a little greener, digitize and save a little money.
EU budget chief Johannes Hahn revealed Tuesday (May 25) that in the run-up to 2030, the Commission will close 25 of its 50 offices in the Belgian capital and merge departments.
“Like all public and private organizations, we are now looking at the most useful balance between office and home work for the longer term.
It’s the new standard, ” said the Austrian official, adding that more than 90 percent of the staff are in favor of the decision.
The idea is that civil servants will be able to telecommute two or three days a week, which will no doubt be popular with a workforce drawn from all over the 27-country union.
Although the number of buildings will be halved, actual office space will only decrease by about a quarter.
“What we plan to do for the first time is to grow directorates-general of the same policy area together in one premise, so that we will have fewer but bigger buildings,” explains Hahn.
The current Commission – which took office in 2019 – is trying to make decisions that do not come from isolated departments or “silos” in EU language, given that policies such as the Green Deal affect almost every sector.
For example, the Commission’s climate, energy and transport departments currently have a reputation for not communicating enough and pursuing their own agendas.
This new real estate strategy could put an end to that disjointed management. Brussels itself can also reap the benefits.
Long maligned for turning a once bustling area of the capital into a glass-and-concrete ghost town (especially on weekends), the EU institutions can help revitalize the city’s northern quarter.
In the 1960s and 1970s, city authorities demolished huge swathes of residential areas to construct office buildings as part of plans to create a new business district. It has largely not attracted tenants and is now a largely empty neighborhood.
The Commission is reportedly considering moving to the area in the coming years, taking advantage of the cheaper rents and doing its fair share to strengthen the relationship with the city.
Hahn declined to comment at this stage, aware of the impact such an announcement could have on property prices.
The Commission’s plan to reduce its carbon footprint and make its employees happier by providing them with a better work-life balance in a post-pandemic world could be offset by the European Parliament’s plans for its next big meeting in June.
Members of the European Parliament traditionally meet once a month in the French city of Strasbourg, as the EU treaty guarantees the status of the capital of Alsace as the host of the Parliament.
During the pandemic, that monthly trip was canceled. It’s a pain point for MEPs, most of whom hate the regular plodding to Strasbourg and are aware of the negative PR it generates.
They may have to return in June, as Parliament’s leadership has decided it is time to get back on the calendar.
However, as travel restrictions are still in place in France and infections are not yet fully controlled due to the slower rate of vaccination in mainland Europe, the EP and their assistants have been advised to travel to Strasbourg in individual cars.
Parliament’s official advice to its Members says that this will allow those making the trip to bypass French border controls – which are not present on the highways connecting it to Belgium and other neighboring countries – but quarantine and testing upon return will still be a necessity .
A petition is currently circulating in MEPs’ inboxes demanding that the President of Parliament reconsider the decision to return to Strasbourg until everyone has had a chance to get vaccinated. Enough pressure can force a change of tactics.