The “Brussels bubble” is not designed for home confinement.
As a hub for people who wield political influence via discrete personal meetings and high-powered lunches, being stuck at home is proving a nightmare.
Travel restrictions mean the usual back-and-forth rhythm to home countries is no longer possible for most. One Commission official said Commission President Ursula von der Leyen went back home to Germany only once since the beginning of the crisis, for 24 hours, last Saturday.
And as Brussels endures its third week of confinement since Belgium announced strict measures to fight the virus, Eurocrats, politicians and lobbyists have found different ways of coping with teleworking and social distancing.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Commissioner Thierry Breton has put in place an innovative virus protection plan.
Some EU officials report having to make phone calls in their closet to isolate from their noisy children, while others have foregone regular business lunches in favor of homeschooling sessions.
From high-ranking officials to the people seeking to influence them, POLITICO has asked how they are coping in these odd and difficult times.
Charles Michel. The European Council president is “working from home,” an EU official said, but he goes to his Council office “several times a week,” and “when it’s needed.” Michel speaks often to security people working at the Council to make sure each meeting is in line with sanitary requirements, including washing hands and social distancing. At last week’s European Council by videoconference, “we managed to make sure there would be very few people,” with Michel in the room, the official said. At home, Michel spends most of his days in video meetings with EU leaders. But he probably also spares a few minutes for Lucie, his 9-month-old second child.
David Sassoli. Earlier this month, the European Parliament president decided to self-quarantine in Brussels for two weeks after traveling to Italy. Since then, he has not seen his wife or children (who are in that country), and even missed his daughter’s graduation, according to his spokesperson Roberto Cuillo. While in quarantine, Sassoli has discovered the “joys of communication technology” and “learnt to use Zoom.” He also organized the Parliament’s weekly “Conference of Presidents” via video. As for many of his fellow countrymen, the lack of physical proximity with people around him is difficult. “David is used to embracing a lot of his colleagues, and it’s hard for him not to do it anymore,” Cuillo said.
Michel Barnier. The Brexit negotiator announced last month that he had tested positive for the virus and would put himself in quarantine. A Commission official said that Barnier “feels better” now but “is tired” and “recovering” in his house in Sologne, a rural area in central France, known as a prime hunting location. Barnier “continues to follow his mission” as the Commission’s Brexit negotiator and “keeps close phone contact” with his closest advisers, Clara Martínez Alberola and Paulina Dejmek-Hack. However, the official said Barnier also finds rest in reading and spending time with his wife Isabelle and close family. He has recently read the newly released biography of former French President Charles de Gaulle by British historian Julian Jackson, and “Memoir of Hungary” by Sándor Márai, a renowned Hungarian author.
Thierry Breton. The internal market commissioner is certainly the best-prepared-against-an-epidemic official in Brussels. In 1984, he wrote a science-fiction book about viruses (in the world of computers) and 10 years later, he wrote 283 pages on “teleworking in France” to provide the French government with a “legal toolbox” to develop and put in place remote working. As an engineer by training and former CEO, he also earned a reputation as a savior of drowning companies. Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Breton has put in place an innovative virus protection plan. According to a spokesman, he has set up a “team A” with his chief of Cabinet and three other Cabinet members, and a “team B” with his deputy chief of Cabinet and three other members. “Team A comes in the office in Brussels for a week, and Team B comes the next, so that they never cross path,” a spokesperson said. Breton himself alternates between the European Commission office in Paris’ seventh arrondissement, and his Berlaymont office. As a member of the Commission’s response team on the coronavirus crisis, Breton attends videoconferences with his colleagues and von der Leyen every morning at 9 a.m. Apart from that, he avoids emails and mainly calls or texts people.
Dita Charanzová. Representing constituents while confined indoors with two kids, ages 7 and 10, is “a marathon,” said the Czech MEP from Renew Europe. She and her family live in Strasbourg where the French government has some of the toughest lockdown measures in place. To manage, the Charanzová household is in hard-core planning mode, spelling out the daily routine at the kitchen table. “Including, what to cook,” she explains. It’s “a challenge to be mentally with the kids but keep working,” she admits. Charanzová homeschools the children between video- and teleconferences and the family does yoga classes together. She has also started an informal recipe exchange with friends after lamenting that she was running out of things to cook. “I’m very tired every evening, but if you are healthy, that’s the most important,” she added.
Iratxe García. Like many others around her, the leader of the socialist group in the Parliament spends most of her confined days on phone and video calls. “She uses video WhatsApp to speak with her parents, sibling, nephew and niece,” said Victoria Martin de la Torre, her spokesperson. García is at home in her tiny village near Valladolid in Spain where she lives with her boyfriend, her cat Luna and her dog Lía. “She also enjoys cooking very much,” and never misses a moment to “applaud doctors, nurses and all personnel working in hospitals to fight the virus.” A large chunk of her work this week has involved organizing the first S&D group meeting with 147 MEPs in videoconference.
Terry Reintke. The German MEP from the Greens, starts her day with a video call with her team where they discuss the latest political developments but also “how everybody feels and copes with the situation,” she said. Reintke holds video and phone conferences “basically all day long,” and leaves the house “only once a day” to go for a run. “Never in my life I was so dependent on a functioning internet,” Reintke said. “Every connection interruption can have negative consequences for a videoconference or an internet live event.” But she takes a break in the evenings to watch movies and documentaries. “My latest great discovery is the show ‘Feel Good,'” she said. Reintke also decided to keep a confinement diary, which “helps me sorting out my thoughts of the day.” She and her group also decided to hold webinars to engage more with EU citizens on specific topics or on social networks like “Instagram Lives” where people can “ask me (almost) anything.”
Margot Lotz. For the founding partner of Harwood Levitt Consulting, daily life with her husband and business partner plus their three kids (ages 4, 5 and 8) is “kind of amusing” at the moment. During a videoconference with an important client, Lotz’s 4-year-old crashed the call to ask if Maom could “check my butt.” Lotz said: “Suddenly, everyone’s a human being, everyone just laughs.” Although she has a home office, once the kids hear her talking, “then there’s a problem.” She’s taken calls from the coat closet, the downstairs bathroom, the basement and even the car. Lotz said she was not the only one searching for a private place to chat. “The kids have regular video calls with individual friends and their classes,” she said. “You also become an office administrator of three kids, managing their online Zoom calls,” in addition to her own. But if we can hang on to the humanity and flexibility even after this crisis, “maybe that will be one of the benefits of this,” she concluded.
THE CABINET OFFICIAL
Aidan O’Sullivan. The O’Sullivan household is coping with confinement in Brussels by setting up a separate office space and taking two-hour shifts, switching between parenting and teleworking along with his pregnant wife, who works for the Commission. The head of Cabinet for the European ombudsman said the family is doing a lot of “19th century” activities, including walks in the forest, playing in the garden and playing music. There isn’t a lot of TV watching or iPad time. “The kids don’t even know we have a TV,” O’Sullivan said. “A lot of Eurocrats probably connect with home rather than the bubble,” now that physical location is less important, O’Sullivan said, adding that family and friends back in his home country of Ireland seem to handle things with a heavy dose of humor.
THE NGO ADVOCATE
Nicholas Aiossa. With three kids ranging from 8 years old to 5 months, working in the same space is “very challenging,” said Aiossa, the deputy director of Transparency International EU. “The kids are ready to go crazy,” he added. Among the hardest things for older children is the lack of time with friends. Aiossa and his wife have set up email accounts so the kids can practice writing to their friends, and their classes have regular Zoom chats. Aiossa’s daily routine, like many parents, “revolves around when the kids need to eat.” While taking conference calls, they’ll routinely ask him questions in the middle of meetings. “It’s become the new normal to attend meetings with kids on laps.” However, “there is a collective sense of patience, flexibility and solidarity on this,” Aiossa said, adding that “we are all in the same boat.”
Karen Massin. The CEO of BCW Brussels has commandeered her son’s bedroom with a full IT set-up because it’s where the Wi-Fi works best. Her one son has therefore taken over the guest bedroom and the other son gets the living room. Massin’s husband is in the master bedroom and their 5-year-old daughter has the run of the house. Welcome to the Massin household, where zoning both space and time has become crucial. It’s very “intense” and “tempting” to always be “on,” she said. So they have every family meal together, including afternoon tea in the garden. It’s a “once in a lifetime” chance to spend so much time with family, Massin added. Work has become a flurry of videoconferences, where her daughter occasionally “steals the show” with hand waving or jumping on the bed. She said it’s “a window into your colleagues’ and clients’ lives.”