Brussels is one of the most powerful cities in the world, but it too has been greatly impacted by Covid-19.
he Belgian capital – which is home to the European Parliament – is emerging from the pandemic much in the same way as Ireland, with outdoor dining among the things to return in recent weeks.
Mask-wearing and social distancing remain important parts of the daily routine, however, though the vaccination programme continues to improve the situation on a daily basis.
One person who has been at the heart of it all, in more ways than one, is Niall Monaghan.
A member of MEP Chris MacManus’ political team, the Ballydoogan native has seen first-hand the European Union’s response, while also navigating through life under severe restrictions in Brussels itself.
Speaking to The Sligo Champion from the continent, Niall says there are signs that light is beginning to emerge at the end of the pandemic tunnel.
“There are still some of the restrictions that you would have in Ireland, but here over the last two weeks in terms of restrictions they’ve definitely started dropping them significantly,” he explained.
“For example, we always would have to wear masks even on the street, now that’s only in buildings in the last two weeks.
“Terraces have opened, so you can now sit outside in bars, in workplaces it’s still mostly like 80pc they want you to work from home, so there’s a bit of a restriction there and obviously you still have to wear a mask on public transport and things like that.
“They [Belgium] have the same as Ireland, a sort of summer plan, and they’ve started implementing that to give people more freedom. “The numbers have significantly dropped, it has levelled off big time and the numbers are dropping so they’re planning here to open things up as the vaccination campaign is ramped up.”
The vaccination programme, as in every country, is providing real hope in finally putting an end to the pandemic.
Niall was among those to get the jab recently – with the younger cohort of the population now the focus of their efforts.
“I’ve got my first dose on Monday and I’m only 30 so the general population, that’s where they have got to now,” he says.
“Even people younger than me can now go on the waiting list and people over 40 now don’t even need an appointment they can just walk into a vaccination centre, and they’ll keep dropping that so I would think in two or three weeks anyone 30 or over won’t even need appointments, they can just walk in. Young people will move up the list then to get an appointment soon.”
Interestingly, Niall explains that there are many similarities with Belgium’s emergence from tighter restrictions and Ireland’s approach.
Outdoor socialising is being emphasised as opposed to indoor gatherings, while working from home is still a major priority.
“They’re not at the stage for opening up inside just yet, but in the next few weeks maybe but outside everything is back to life,
“We were obviously very worried that a lot of businesses wouldn’t survive but a lot of them have reopened, and some new ones have opened up.
“I think the outdoor is probably significantly better than Ireland in some cases in that they are more used to that European cultural thing of sitting outside a bar.
“So the amount of bars that have outdoor space is much, much higher than Ireland, when I think of Sligo a lot of places wouldn’t have outdoor spaces, you’re thinking mostly around the river.
“But here nearly every bar would have a section outside and they take quite a number of people. Also here people would view it as normal to be outside and there’d be someone going around to take your order so it’s just a continuation of that where they come to your table and take your order and you only go inside to use the bathroom.
“The weather is good too. We’ve a heatwave here at the minute so we’re looking at 30 degrees in the next few days.”
Adjusting to working from home has been a challenge for many all over the world – and the work of the European Parliament is no different.
Niall and other staff members have been operating remotely for much of the last year, but the nature of politics means that face-to-face interaction is required on certain occasions when key decisions are up for discussion.
“We can work from home, but like anyone it’s not ideal when you don’t have your home office set up,” Niall outlines.
“But you do it how you can, whether you’re working from the couch with your laptop. The parliament were very good, they gave us the devices to work from home and it was 100pc working from home, but now they’ve moved to 80pc.
“Chris has 3 staff but we will rotate it as much as we can so that we won’t all be here at the same time, we can’t share an office but because we have three offices, I could be in one and the other staff could be in another.
“It is encouraged still to work from home as much as possible so I’d work two or three days a week from home, then on the other days you come to the parliament you’ll have your temperature taken as you come in, so they have that in place and when you’re in the building you’re still wearing your masks.
“Meetings are semi-remote, some of the meetings we have you will go to a room with social distancing but a lot of it will still be remote.
“At the moment we’re doing the Common Agricultural Policy negotiations and it was the same. Usually it might be 100 of us in a room, but now there are only 30 or 40 allowed because of the spacing.
“Everyone else has to be remote and it’s difficult because there are the usual issues of broadband quality, not being able to hear people and their connection cutting out and not being able to hear people, so it can be quite difficult to do things but you just have to bear with it and it’s the same situation for everyone.”
Niall worked previously with former MEP Matt Carthy, who was elected to the Dáil as a TD for Cavan Monaghan in February of last year. Chris MacManus was then co-opted to fill the MEP seat, representing the vast Midlands North West constituency which spans 13 counties across three provinces.
“I was here with Matt Carthy before so it’s nearly four years since I started, I’d actually left and went to New Zealand for seven months and then came back, so the pandemic had started when I left New Zealand so I came from a place with zero covid right into the belly of it when Brussels had three or four thousand cases a day. It was a big change from New Zealand.”
Given the circumstances, he hasn’t seen as much of Sligo as he might otherwise have when travel was permitted, but he is hopeful of a return to the native sod before too long.
Earlier this year, a strict non-travel rule was in place in Belgium which prevented any non-essential travel out of the country for those residing there.
“I was home when I came back from New Zealand, so that’s a year ago or so. Just with the hotel quarantine opened up and everything it’s just became something that I said I’d wait until I got both of my doses and then hopefully it’ll be easier.
“Even then you’re nervous because even though you get a test before you leave you’d still be afraid that you picked it up on the plane and you’d affect your parents. It’s nearly better just to stay away, I’d nearly prefer not to risk it.
“I chat to my mother every second day trying to ask her for news but there’s not that much happening!
“Both of my parents are vaccinated now so that’s great, it’s more scary being away from home when you’re thinking of your parents in the pandemic and they’re going to the supermarket and that sort of stuff when they’re not vaccinated, so it’s a bit of a relief that they’ve both got the jab.”
Niall playing big role as crucial CAP teased out
As a member of Chris MacManus’ political team based in Brussels – with others based at home in Ireland, Niall is well used to working as part of a team.
At present, his role as political advisor is particularly important as crucial negotiations surrounding the Common Agricultural Policy are teased out by politicians at European level and member state governments on the way forward.
It is a contentious issue, illustrated in protests held recently by farmers across Ireland at some of the mooted reforms and proposals that have emerged in the distribution of funding set to be in the region of €387 billion.
Already, negotiations have taken place, but broke down last month. There is an added sense of urgency at the latest talks, with the deadline of being finished in the coming weeks looming large.
Outlining his own role within the MacManus team, Niall says much of his recent work has centred on CAP and hammering out a deal.
“I’m his [Chris MacManus] political advisor that deals with agriculture, so I cover the agricultural and rural affairs committee here.
“My main work would be the CAP reform, which we are supposed to be finishing next week.
“Chris is one of the negotiators of the new reform, so I physically go to the actual meetings and we’d be going through the text, proposing amendments and stuff like that. “We’d be throwing an amount of hours into that actual process.”
While the actual decision-making powers fall to the politicians, those in the background, such as Niall, play a vital role in the negotiations, particularly when it comes to the minutiae of policy and how it is formulated.
“You go to the meetings to work out the technical wording, and then the politicians come in and deal with the politics of it, horse trading of ‘this is what the red lines are’ and that sort of stuff.
“So we’d do a lot more of the technical preparation and the less controversial elements of the text.”
Efforts continue to be made on all sides for an amicable resolution to what has been a long-running process.
Niall says it has been a challenge for everyone involved but is hopeful a deal can be struck to satisfy the interests of all those involved in the negotiations from all corners of the continent.
“Next week it’s supposed to be finished, we were in negotiations a couple of weeks ago and they collapsed due to a difference between the parliament and member state governments.
“It’s a really contentious issue and especially in Ireland with farmers, it’s a really divisive issue.”