With the encouragement of Secretary-General Klaus Welle, the European Parliament is investing in not only Brussels office space but also the city's heritage. Following the House of European History and the Wiertz project, plans are now afoot to turn the Solvay building into a major European library. ‘It always struck me that there were some real gems to be found in the environs of Parliament, but that to some extent they had seen better days.’
Who is Klaus Welle?
In normal times, the European Parliament Esplanade is a veritable hive of activity, teeming with busy MEPs, officials and visitors bustling back and forth. These days, however, with most MEPs at home, officials now teleworking and visitors conspicuous by their absence because of the COVID pandemic, the windswept mall feels bare and bleak.
In the midst of all this, Klaus Welle, Secretary-General of the European Parliament, has, over the last few months, remained constantly at his post in his office at the top of the Paul-Henri Spaak building.
Twenty-six years ago, he came to Brussels from Germany to become the right-hand man of Wilfried Martens, who was then President of the European People's Party. For almost 12 years, he has been the top official of the European Parliament, the institution representing the peoples of the 27 Member States, based in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg and employing some 10 000 people. As the captain of this unwieldy vessel, he is required to navigate what are sometimes extremely turbulent political waters. ‘I act as a kind of
go-between, charting a course through both political and administrative channels.’
How has the European Parliament weathered the COVID pandemic over the last few months?
Our three golden rules have been continuity, protection and solidarity in both word and deed.
The show must go on. Since Parliament’s agreement is generally needed, the whole of the European Union would be unable to act if our institution stopped taking decisions. At the same time, we needed to protect MEPs, political group staff, officials and everyone else who works here. In March, we therefore resolved to revolutionise how we do things, in readiness for a switch to teleworking. Everyone was given a laptop so that they could work from home. We pretty much bought up the entire market – about 10 000 laptops.
A few more people returned to the office during the summer months but, at the end of October, we reverted to 100% teleworking, which in practice amounts to 80% or 90%, given that the presence of a skeleton staff - IT specialists and security personnel - is essential.
© Saskia Vanderstichele | Klaus Welle: ‘We wish to show that there is more to Europe than just rules and regulations, administration and politics. There is also culture and history.’
In the normal run of events, MEPs, numbering 705 since the departure of the United Kingdom, would be shuttling back and forth between Brussels, Strasbourg and their places of residence to attend committee and other meetings and plenary sessions. How has that worked out?
We have made sure that they have been able to work from home in their own countries; they have been able to remotely attend political group and committee meetings, as well as plenary sittings; interpretation has even been provided.
We have also introduced remote voting; and anyone who has wanted to speak in plenary has been able to do so at Parliament’s information offices in each Member State.
‘Parliament has been lending out its drivers to provide a night-time transport service for doctors and care workers in Brussels.’
- Klaus Welle, Secretary-General of the European Parliament
In the meantime, MEPs have not been to Strasbourg for nine months.
The part-sessions have gone ahead, but have been held in Brussels or online. In September and October, we looked into whether a return to Strasbourg might be possible, but the health crisis ruled that out. Not that the situation in Strasbourg was any more serious than elsewhere, but there were risk factors arising from travelling and from staying in hotels. We attempted to find solutions to this, but when the infection rates in Strasbourg grew worse, we decided against returning.
This does not mean that we will fail to honour our political and indeed legal obligation to meet in Strasbourg too. We will return as soon as possible, but first the COVID statistics have to improve.
You also mentioned a third golden rule: solidarity in both word and deed.
In our various places of work, since the outbreak of the pandemic we have made available to the local community our infrastructure facilities and services that are no longer being fully utilised. For example, Parliament has been lending out its drivers to provide a night-time transport service for doctors and care workers in Brussels. Two thousand meals have been cooked every day in our restaurants in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg for distribution to the homeless by social welfare organisations. In addition, we have cleared a space in our building on the square de Meeûs to accommodate around one hundred vulnerable women for a few months and we have set up a test centre in Strasbourg. In this way, we have been seeking to send a clear message of solidarity with the cities where Parliament is located.
Will the coronavirus be a game changer for life in Parliament? Last week, the Commission announced that its restaurant would remain closed for the time being while it reflected on how to reorganise it. Is Parliament thinking along similar lines?
We have been keeping the restaurant open even though very few people now eat there. We are seeking to maintain our range of services as much as possible, and have restarted cooking fresh meals for homeless people. In so doing, we are also supporting the kitchen staff, many of whom come from outside. If there is no work, we cannot pay them. In this way, they can keep working.
It goes without saying that there will be lessons to be learned by us from this crisis. More of our staff members will undoubtedly be working from home in future. However, we must carefully look into who this can be organised for, and to what extent. After all, teleworking has both benefits and drawbacks. We will need to strike a fresh balance.
‘It is true that the initial response to the crisis came from national governments, leading to problems such as border closures.’
- Klaus Welle, Secretary-General of the European Parliament
Now that MEPs have found they can work perfectly well from their home countries, do you think that they will they be returning to Brussels so often?
While anything can be done from a distance from a purely technical point of view, there is really no substitute for hands-on parliamentary activity, engaging in debates, holding meetings and spending time together in the interim. If we became a parliament in which everyone stayed at home, delivering speeches and voting remotely, we would be enormously diminished as an institution. At the same time, of course, we have to make use of what online digital technology has to offer, for example arranging for an American expert to address Parliament briefly from his New York office.
With the European district now empty and deserted, the importance of the EU institutions to Brussels has suddenly been brought home to many of its residents, with whom the relationship is generally a little difficult. At the same time, many still regard it as a soulless district of office buildings full of Eurocrats ensconced in their bubble.
Be that as it may, relations with the Brussels Region have improved enormously in the 12 years that I have been in office, especially since the government appointed Alain Hutchinson as Commissioner for Europe in 2015. There is now an easy-going dialogue with the government.
We for our part have sought to be more open and make the Parliament site more accessible to European citizens and thus to the residents of Brussels. Parliament must not be an ivory tower. We have accordingly been doing much more in recent years to reach out to the public. Indeed, we have since become the third most popular attraction in Brussels, thanks to the Parlamentarium, the House of European History and the renovated Wiertz garden that recently opened. We also wish to turn the Solvay building in Parc Léopold into a library again, a major European library accessible to all, That is our way of showing that there is more to Europe than just rules and regulations, administration and politics. There is also culture and history.
© Saskia Vanderstichele | Klaus Welle: ‘Relations with the Brussels Region have improved enormously in the 12 years that I have been in office, especially since the government appointed a Commissioner for Europe in 2015.’
Has any agreement been reached regarding the library with Citydev, the leaseholder?
Citydev is right behind us on this, but still has a contract with another organisation (Edificio, a company that rents out prestige locations - Ed.) That is an issue remaining to be resolved. However, we have our game plan ready. The basement will be packed with new technology designed to appeal to younger visitors, while the library, in the traditional sense of the word, will be located on the ground floor. Events will be also held in the building with the aim of reaching out to citizens and making them feel more involved in Europe.
Nevertheless, a number of local residents and others further afield in the city remain suspicious of further European Parliament expansion in the district, which is, of course, designed to promote the European Union.
Very true: we are promoting Europe. However, these projects are intended not to provide more workspace for Parliament but to benefit the public. I also think they do in fact add something to the quality of life of people from Brussels and elsewhere in Europe. When I came to Brussels, I immediately noticed that there were some real gems to be found in the environs of Parliament, but that to some extent they had seen better days. Look at the House of European History located in the Eastman building. It used to be a somewhat run-down European Parliament office block and has now been entirely renovated and turned into a public museum.
The same applies to the beautiful Wiertz garden. It had always been closed off before we restored it and opened it to the public. It is now graced by benches, a pretty kiosk and sculptures of European philosophers. In the summer, concerts were held there every afternoon for the benefit of the public. To my mind, there are only benefits for the people of Brussels.
© Saskia Vanderstichele | Klaus Welle: ‘The painter Antoine Wiertz's former home is also being renovated. A cafe with a terrace and winter garden will be sited on the ground floor. A number of small rooms will be located on the floor above where MEPs will be able to meet citizens from their home countries. A room with a large roof terrace will be situated at the top of the building.’
Antoine Wiertz's former home is also being taken over and renovated by the European Parliament.
Yes, that building is also in a deplorable state. The windows are coming loose and the stairs are no longer usable. That means a lot of work. A cafe with a terrace and winter garden will be sited on the ground floor. A number of small rooms will be located on the floor above where MEPs will be able to meet citizens from their home country. A room with a large roof terrace will be situated at the top of the building. We are planning to hold exhibitions there in agreement with local organisations. The meeting places to be provided by the house and park are permeated by culture. That is no accident, since they are in what used to be a neighbourhood frequented by artists.
Parliament is therefore investing heavily. Something must also be done about the Paul-Henri Spaak building, known as the ‘Caprice des Dieux’, which houses the Chamber. Barely 27 years old, it is already looking decidedly shabby.
The building is indeed beginning to show its age a great deal. However, it is only to be expected that, after 30 years, a building of this type, with its offices and meeting rooms, will need to be considerably refurbished. Meanwhile, a number of surveys have also shown that major works will be necessary just to bring it into line with present-day energy and environmental standards. According to the Bureau (made up of the President and Vice-Presidents - Ed.), there are two options: either major renovation works or a completely new building.
© European Parliament | Klaus Welle: ‘We have invited a number of internationally renowned architects to tender for renovation works or for the construction of a new Paul-Henri Spaak building.’
No architectural design contest was held, at the time, for the Spaak building. Will things be done differently this time?
When the building was erected, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Parliament had no legal standing in Brussels and therefore was not entitled to build on its own account. The decision to construct an international conference centre in the neighbourhood was a Belgian private initiative. We subsequently purchased the building, having had no say at all in the design thereof.
This time, we have invited a number of internationally renowned architects to tender for renovation works or for the construction of a new building. We are expecting the bids to be submitted in the spring. We will submit the five best to the Bureau, which will have the final say in the matter.
In endeavouring to get to grips with the pandemic, it has been very much a case of every country for itself. No coordinated European approach to containing the virus has thus far been taken.
It is true that the initial response to the crisis came from national governments, leading to problems such as border closures. However, after only a few weeks, people were looking to the EU, notwithstanding its very limited powers in the field of public health. In the meantime, you can see that it has assumed responsibility for distribution of the vaccine and is cooperating on that with manufacturers. Europe will ensure that all Member States, rich or poor, have equal access to it.
At all events, the EU has this time been much quicker to respond than in the case of the migration and financial crisis, taking just a few weeks to assume its role, as opposed to years when the financial crisis hit. We are therefore making progress.