View from Brussels: Introducing the EU ‘e-summit’ during coronavirus outbreak

Coronavirus is wreaking havoc on how the EU institutions go about their day-to-day business, not to mention long-term planning.

The EU’s initial response to the virus scare was a rather disjointed affair. The European Commission, Council and Parliament – the three main institutions – all started implementing different in-house measures to try and contain the disease.

Thousands of employees work in different departments across the Belgian capital and many travel and meet people from all walks of life. Their potential to spread the virus is therefore a real and present danger.

Brussels has little power over how countries fight coronavirus – they are free to close borders, for example, and only have to notify the Commission – but the institutions control what goes on at their HQs.

The most divisive measure was when the Parliament’s vast support staff were told to self-isolate if they had been to at-risk areas in Italy. But for the 705 MEPs – the ones most likely to be shaking hands and meeting the public – it was only a voluntary requirement.

David Sassoli, the assembly’s President, finally led by example and quarantined himself at home when the risk zone was extended to the entire country, insisting he would “exercise my function as President from my home in Brussels”. The Italian politician then joined the plenary session via video link – a first for the Parliament – to explain that his services would be “using technology to allow for full participation of MEPs in parliamentary life”.

Meanwhile, at the Commission and Council, meetings were cancelled. But then the Council of 27 member states decided to meet in video-conferencing format to discuss the latest measures. This could spell a watershed moment for how the EU is run, given the chaos that descends most months when the big summits are on.

Two Council officials contacted by E&T said that the virtual meet-up would be “definitely a challenge” but insisted there are no foreseeable problems. Indeed some diplomats joked that it would be an improvement because microphones could be quietly muted when leaders start to ramble. 

Whether summits dealing with more politically sensitive topics would be possible is unclear. Last summer’s meet-up – where top institutional positions were distributed – was a maximum-security affair, with no phones or aides allowed in the room.

Any normalisation of teleconferencing would require top-level encryption and tech support. It is already a tricky affair to get any kind of agreements from these meetings, so digital hiccups would be unacceptable.

In any case it was a major milestone. The ‘e-summit’ is the first to be streamed from 27 European capitals and was actually recorded. It might prove an interesting piece of archive footage for historians.

For the Parliament, virtual meetings and the hushed suggestion that e-voting could be deployed might yet resolve the so-called ‘single-seat’ debate – MEPs shuttle once a month to Strasbourg, a largely unpopular trip. This month’s crisis-necessitated developments might yet start the ball rolling on serious moves to put a stop to it.

The situation was evolving rapidly when E&T went to print, both in terms of case numbers and measures taken by governments, but the impact on a few of the main issues on the EU docket are already clear to see.

Ongoing Brexit talks might be one of the first casualties if meetings – as expected – have to be postponed. Negotiators are already up against it time-wise and coronavirus could provide the excuse needed to ask for up to a year of extra haggling time.

EU negotiator Michel Barnier has been coy on the prospect of an extension but has regularly conceded that Brussels would consider it if asked to by the UK government ahead of the July deadline.

There is also the knock-on effect on climate policies, given the EU wants to turn up to summits with China and the UN later this year with new green rules firmly in place. If policymaking is disrupted, they might fall by the wayside.

But Brussels has shown it is capable of working quickly to fight the virus. Airlines were operating at times empty flights just to hold onto lucrative take-off and landing slots for 2021, which are governed by so-called ‘use it or lose it’ rules. The Commission decided on 10 March to relax the law temporarily to quell “both economic and environmental negative impact” of the ‘ghost flights’.

There is no doubt that the EU institutions are going to have to step in to help deal with the outbreak.

This column was first published in the print edition of E&T, Vol 15 Issue 3, March 18 2020

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