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The European Parliament has closed the last plenary session of its 9th term.

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Lawmakers will now head back to their native countries to prepare for the elections in June when voters will choose the 720 members of the next legislature. 

For many in the Parliament, the respite will doubtless be welcomed after five years of navigating a formidable succession of global emergencies, haggling over transformative pieces of legislation and scrambling to manage PR disasters.

“I would never have been able to predict both how much we managed to achieve, but also how many crises and challenges we’ve had to overcome and to handle,” the Parliament’s president, Roberta Metsola, told Euronews.

As the curtain draws, we look at the 11 moments that defined the 9th Legislature.

Von der Leyen’s razor-thin confirmation

It is fair to say that Ursula von der Leyen came out of the blue.

The Brussels-born politician was, ironically, a mostly unknown figure in Brussels until the summer of 2019, as she had been serving in the federal government of Chancellor Angela Markel holding several portfolios – defence being the last.

Her ascendence happened in the blink of an eye after the European Council, under the strong influence of Emmanuel Macron, dismissed the candidacy of Manfred Weber, the presumed nominee, to head the European Commission.

With Weber out of the picture, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) rushed to find a new contender from its ranks. It was then that Macron reportedly plucked von der Leyen’s name out of the air, hailing her as a pragmatic conservative who could also satisfy the liberal, socialist and green factions. Back then, even Viktor Orbán agreed.

But the Parliament reacted furiously to the blatant dismantling of the Spitzenkandidaten system, which the French president had vocally opposed. Von der Leyen was confirmed with 382 votes in favour – just nine votes above the required 374, a record-breaking margin.

‘Auld Lang Syne’

Brexit was a tough pill to swallow for Brussels. The United Kingdom’s withdrawal was a drawn-out, tortuous exercise that tested the limits of diplomatic goodwill.

It came to an end on 29 January 2020, when MEPs gave their consent to the agreement that saw the UK officially quit the EU after 47 years of membership, making it the first member state to leave the union.

Right after the results of the vote (621 in favour and 49 against) were announced, lawmakers stood up, held hands and belted out a redemption of “Auld Lang Syne,” a popular Scottish song that evokes the end of a long-time friendship.

The poignant moment was followed by applause, hugs and tears. A few days later, the Parliament redistributed seats to account for the departure of the 73 British MEPs.

The MEP who escaped through the drainpipe

This is the story of József Szájer, a five-term MEP from Hungary’s Fidesz, the ruling party of Viktor Orbán that in 2021 was resoundingly censured for spearheading anti-LGBTQ legislation under the guise of “protecting” children’s safety.

Szájer, though, appeared immune to the party’s manifesto as he partook in a sex party that is said to have convened 25 men in the centre of Brussels. The intimate soirée of November 2021, organised in open breach of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, was interrupted by Belgian police after neighbours complained about the noise.

According to a report from the Public Prosecutor’s office, the Hungarian politician attempted to escape the police by climbing down the gutter of the private apartment and was found with bloody hands and narcotics in his backpack, which he denied using.

“I am sorry that I have violated the rules of assembly. It was irresponsible on my part. I will accept the penalties for that,” Szájer said in a statement days after his resignation.

The details of the adventure unleashed a media frenzy, as Brussels was then numbed by the inactivity of COVID-19 and yearned for anything resembling a thrill. The contrast between Szájer’s work and Szájer’s after-work was not lost on readers.

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Pharma CEOs face the music

Confronted with a once-in-a-century pandemic, the EU moved to jointly buy life-saving vaccines, putting big money on the table of pharmaceutical multinationals. While initial deliveries were understandably slow due to huge global demand, one specific company ruffled feathers with its constant, eyebrow-raising delays: AstraZeneca.

The firm had committed to providing 90 million doses in the first quarter of 2021 but soon downgraded the target to just 30 million.

The Parliament, which had taken a step back due to lockdown restrictions, jumped into the fray by holding a virtual hearing to grill the CEOs of pharma companies, who were flooded with questions about production, authorisations and timetables. Inevitably, all the fingers were pointed at AstraZeneca’s Pascal Soriot, considered the main culprit.

“How is it possible that you have no clue?” said Finnish MEP Silvia Modig, who called Soriot a “piece of soap” over his confusing statements about deliveries.

The Commission later sued AstraZeneca. The litigation ended in a settlement.

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Farewell to David Sassoli

In the early hours of 11 January 2022, it was announced that David Sassoli, the president of the European Parliament, had died.

The 65-year-old Italian socialist had suffered a prolonged period of poor health and had been previously admitted to hospital during his mandate. Still, the announcement shook the city as he was a beloved figure across the political spectrum, admired for his easy smile and warm character.

The Parliament hosted a commemorative event with mask-clad lawmakers and leaders, which opened with an eulogy delivered all in Italian by his successor, Roberta Metsola.

“Europe has lost a leader, democracy has lost a champion and all of us have lost a friend,” Metsola said. “A man of great vision and deep convictions, he always knew how to translate the values he believed in into concrete actions.”

Sassoli was laid to rest in Rome after a state funeral at Santa Maria degli Angeli Basilica.

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‘Prove that you are with us’

As Russian missiles fell over Kyiv and the fate of Ukraine hanged by the thinnest of threads, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy engineered an audacious geopolitical realignment by applying for EU membership.

Seeking to dispel any doubts about his true ambitions, Zelenskyy virtually joined an extraordinary session of the European Parliament on March 1 2022, and made the case for his war-torn nation, promising that “no one is going to break us.”

“We are fighting for our rights, for our freedoms and now we’re fighting for survival. We are also fighting to be equal members of Europe,” Zelenskyy told MEPs.

“Do prove that you are with us. Do prove that you will not let us go. Do prove that you are indeed Europeans. And then, life will win over death and light will win over darkness. Glory be to Ukraine!”

The speech immediately became one of the most impassioned, memorable pleas ever delivered in the hemicycle. Even the translator’s voice broke, overpowered by emotion.

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‘Qatargate’, a scandal like no other

The European Parliament knows one thing or two about sordid political scandals but it was certainly not ready for the storm that struck in December 2022.

Belgian police revealed the existence of a cash-for-favours scheme involving “large” sums of money and “substantial” gifts allegedly paid by Qatar and Morocco to influence the institution’s decision-making. (Both countries deny any wrongdoing.)

The case led to the arrest of Vice President Eva Kaili, a rising star in the Parliament, together with her partner, Francesco Giorgi, a long-time accredited assistant. Kaili was reportedly “caught in the act” trying to get rid of bags filled with cash, prompting the automatic lifting of her immunity. She spent over four months in prison.

Corruption charges were also levelled at Marc Tarabella and Andrea Cozzolino, two sitting lawmakers, and Pier Antonio Panzeri, a former MEP who would later strike a bombshell deal with prosecutors to admit his role in briberies and share “revealing” details.

Kaili, Tarabella and Cozzolino pushed back against Panzeri’s claims and challenged the criminal charges, calling them unfounded and insisting on their innocence.

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Still, the whirlwind of accusations, police raids, leaked confessions and finger-pointing between legal teams proved highly damaging for the Parliament, which scrambled to put out a new code of conduct in a desperate bid to contain one of its worst-ever PR crises.

Unfortunately, the spectre of foreign influence would come back to haunt the institution in the form of Russiagate and Chinagate.

A fierce battle for nature

The 2019-2024 term gave rise to far-reaching, ambitious pieces of legislation, some of which were intensely negotiated and debated until reaching the finish line. But none come close to the Nature Restoration Law, a proposal to gradually rehabilitate the EU’s land and sea areas degraded by climate change and human activity.

The text was rather low-profile compared to other pieces of the Green Deal that had attracted greater attention. However, in spring 2023, the European People’s Party (EPP) began a full-throttle campaign to bring down the law, arguing it would imperil food production, increase retail prices and devastate the traditional livelihoods of farmers.

The talking points were frontally disputed by progressive MEPs, environmental organisations, legal scholars and even multinationals, who said restoring nature was indispensable to maintain a prosperous economy and sustainable supply chains.

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The EPP pressed on with a controversial social media push, going as far as claiming the legislation would turn the city of Rovaniemi, where Santa Claus lives, into a forest. 

Although the Parliament eventually approved a watered-down version of the law with 329 votes in favour and 275 against, the battle paved the way for a wider contestation of the Green Deal in the run-up to the 2024 elections.

The December marathon

With the elections nearing closer, the Parliament put the pedal to the metal to close as many legislative files as possible. The concentrated effort saw its peak in December 2023, when lawmakers managed to strike a provisional deal with member states on two of the mandate’s most significant laws: the Artificial Intelligence Act, a world-first attempt to rein in the revolutionary technology, and the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, a comprehensive reform of the bloc’s migration policy.

It was not easy, though. The AI Act was concluded after record-breaking talks that stretched over 35 hours across three consecutive days, as lawmakers stood their ground to expand the list of prohibitive practices that could infringe on fundamental rights. The negotiations on the New Pact were split into several sessions to allow the Parliament and the Council to thrash out five separate yet interlinked laws.

In classic Brussels fashion, both deals were celebrated as “historic.” 

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‘Stop being boring’

Leave it to a grieving widow to deliver a good old reality check.

Clad in a striking black outfit, Yulia Navalnaya appeared before the European Parliament in late February 2024, days after her husband, Alexei Navalny, died in suspicious circumstances while imprisoned in Russia. Navalnaya paid tribute to the late opposition leader’s courage by boldly telling MEPs to put their money where their mouth is.

“If you really want to defeat Putin, you have to become an innovator. You have to stop being boring,” Navalnaya told MEPs, as she contained her emotions.

“You cannot hurt Putin with another resolution or another set of sanctions that is no different to the last one,” she went on.

“You cannot defeat him by thinking he is a man of principle who has morals and rules. He is not like that. And Alexei realised that a long time ago. You are not dealing with a politician but with a bloody monster.”

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Her intervention concluded with a thunderous standing ovation.

See EU in court

This list could not be completed without a dash of inter-institutional drama.

For the past decade, the European Parliament has led the charge against Viktor Orbán and the democratic backsliding inside Hungary. The topic was a leitmotiv of this last term, as MEPs from across the aisle voted resolution after resolution with increasingly harsh language. (At one point, they declared Hungary was “no longer a democracy.”)

This explains why the Parliament reacted so furiously after the European Commission released €10.2 billion in cohesion funds to Budapest that had been previously frozen over rule-of-law concerns. Lawmakers put the decision on blast, saying a judicial reform introduced by Orbán’s government fell woefully short of the necessary conditions and that courts were still at risk of political interference. 

The fact the Commission unblocked the money one day before a crucial EU summit that Orbán had openly threatened to derail further fuelled accusations of backroom deals and quid-pro-quo machinations, which von der Leyen’s executive denied.

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Still, Parliament filed a lawsuit against the Commission in March 2024, a radical move that encapsulated the bloc’s ever-lasting fight to uphold its fundamental values in the face of regressive forces.

***

Honourable mentions: the hearings of Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri and Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, the rapturous speech of Cate Blanchett, the ban on Amazon lobbyists and the passing of the Media Freedom Act.

Dishonourable mentions: the use of Pegasus software to spy on lawmakers, the Irish MEP who showed up in his underwear and the Dutch MEP who wrote “Go, Putin!”

Chaotic mentions: the feisty vote on the Emissions Trading System, the dog that barked in the hemicycle and the Slovak MEP who randomly released a dove.

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