STRASBOURG — They’ve missed eight months of work, 10 plenary sessions and countless votes, speeches and group meetings, but the “ghost MEPs” are finally getting down to work.
This week, 27 new MEPs showed up in Strasbourg to take the places of Brits now that the U.K. has left the European Union.
They were all elected last May on the understanding that they would become MEPs once the U.K. had left the bloc. Since then, they’ve faced uncertainty as Brexit was delayed and, in some cases, unemployment.
They may have been late to the party but as of February 1, the new MEPs have been in place (although some didn’t have a desk or an assistant when they showed up in Brussels — and three Dutch MEPs only officially took up their seats on Tuesday) and this week was their first plenary session.
“The others have been working, and we have been waiting,” said Margarita de la Pisa Carrión, a new MEP from Spain’s far-right Vox party.
“I often thought ‘where am I going? Am I staying in Brussels? Am I staying in my job?’” — Spanish MEP Adrián Vázquez Lázara
“Obviously, waiting for eight months … it’s not a short time and the situation was a little special,” said Vincenzo Sofo, a new MEP from Italy’s far-right League (who happens to be the partner of French far-right politician Marion Maréchal, Marine Le Pen’s niece). “It was also unprecedented because we went through an election, but a frozen one.”
In 2018, MEPs voted to shrink the size of the European Parliament after Brexit from 751 to 705, with 27 British seats being redistributed among other EU countries to compensate for existing biases in representation and the rest of the seats held in reserve in case the EU adds new members.
But Brexit dragged on and the U.K. ended up taking part in the May 2019 European election, which delayed the redistribution of seats and put 27 MEPs in limbo. Many of them worried that they would never be able to take up their seats.
“It was a wait-and-see situation,” said Adrián Vázquez Lázara, a Spanish MEP from the centrist Renew Europe group. “I often thought ‘where am I going? Am I staying in Brussels? Am I staying in my job?’”
Vázquez Lázara was already in Brussels, working for the Ciudadanos delegation in the Parliament, and so continued in that job while he waited.
Meanwhile, Sofo decided he would “start working as an MEP without being an MEP” and campaigned in Italy’s regional election in his constituency of Calabria. Alviina Alametsä from the Greens stayed in her job at a Finnish NGO specializing in mental health.
But the ride was bumpier for de la Pisa Carrión, a former pharmacist, who said she heard nothing from the Parliament and had to rely on “good sense” to figure out what was happening. She spent the eight months between being elected and starting work taking care of her eight children, making “floral decorations” and enjoying the countryside in Ireland, where she had moved from Spain.
Miriam Lexmann of Slovakia worked for the political non-profit International Republican Institute but had to give up that job when she was elected to avoid conflicts of interest. “So I left the NGO and was out of a job,” she said.
Other new MEPs include a former Estonian army general; a Catalan professor who played a leading role in the failed independence referendum; and some former MEPs returning to the role such as Deirdre Clune from Ireland and Gabriel Mato from Spain.
“The committees are already running so now I have to see what has happened in the last eight months, what is in the pipeline, and to catch up” — Slovakian MEP Miriam Lexman
Because they arrived eight months after their colleagues, many have accepted roles in the Parliament that aren’t necessarily a great match. In Finland, Alametsä campaigned for a law improving mental health issues. But in the Parliament, she was offered a place on the foreign affairs committee — not on the committee dealing with public health.
“It is a bit terrifying to come to a new place like this one,” Alametsä said. “But … I feel like I am in the right place at the right time.”
Although the Parliament set up a “welcome desk” in Strasbourg to help the new MEPs get the right badges and find the right rooms, there have still been teething problems. Lexmann said she had to vote on a number of topics this week but “didn’t have an office last week in Brussels so I had no access to the [relevant] documents” and asked colleagues “to give me some views on what’s going on.”
“The committees are already running so now I have to see what has happened in the last eight months, what is in the pipeline, and to catch up,” Lexmann said.
Sofo was less concerned about catching up and more interested in promoting “Italy’s south and particularly Calabria.”
He described the Parliament as an “inefficient and bureaucratic organization.”
“I understand why it is an institution that today doesn’t work and must be changed, and we have been elected to make that change,” Sofo said.