Brussel’s Schuman round about and Luxembourg square, home to the EU institutions, are generally areas bustling with activity, people going to or coming from meetings, informal get-togethers in the adjacent bars and simple passersby. For the last week both areas look like a ghost town with the occasional car driving by. Lockdown is what keeps the restaurants and bars closed and teleworking empties the streets of the usual crowds. If people are working from home and lawmakers and officials are not supposed to gather, what keeps the EU’s democratic decision-making going?
Although not the heart of European democracy, the Commission is the machinery that churns out any legislative or other initiative. Without it, work would undeniably come to a standstill. As in the rest of Belgium, where possible, EU officials and employees are working from home and using conf calls and video conferences. This holds true from the bottom to the top of the hierarchy with a few exceptions of essential staff that need to be onsite. Decision-making at the top is nevertheless guaranteed with the College- and its preparatory meetings going on as planned via video conferences. Many decisions are also taken by the existing and already largely used written procedure. An example in case is the 300 million euros support scheme that Luxembourg has put it place. It was validated under the EU’s brand-new state aid temporary framework in a matter of days. The agenda of the College of Commissioners has also been adapted and reduced to reflect the new working conditions. A number of initiatives that were due to be adopted earlier have now been postponed to a later (e.g. AML action plan) or to a not yet defined date (e.g. Basel transposition originally expected by the end of May / June).
The European Parliament has spectacularly cancelled all regular plenary sessions in Strasbourg to replace them with shorter versions – so-called mini-plenaries – in Brussels that will focus on the essential. An extraordinary plenary session was held this week on Thursday with MEPs able to vote remotely to take decisions on three urgent COVID-19 related measures. To do so they had to fill in a ballot box, sign it and send the scanned version to the tabling desk via their EP email address. More specifically when it comes to financial services, the relevant parliamentary committee on economic and monetary affairs (ECON) had to cope with its chair, the Italian Irene Tinagli, blocked in her constituency in Northern Italy for weeks already. Meetings have been cancelled and the ones that go through will be organized remotely.
The Council of the European Union has cancelled all physical meetings and is working through conference calls and video conferences. For example, the ECOFIN Council meeting of 23 March focused on the most urgent items i.e. the impact of COVID 19 on the economies, the stability and growth pact and the so-called European semester on the fiscal side. Not to mention that in general priorities have shifted and that draft agendas the current Croatian Presidency had prepared at the start of their six months term need to be revisited. The above mentioned ECOFIN meeting was obviously held remotely and by conf call. The same holds true for preparatory meetings at the ambassador and more technical echelons if the non-essential meetings have not been cancelled. Also, the conditions and modalities for the existing and regularly used written procedure between Member States have been made easier to smoothen decision making and adapt to the situation.
All in all, the EU institutions are coping with the situation imposed by COVID 19 like the rest of society. Importantly though, and unlike some sectors of the economy, they are not shut down and like essential government services are operational and continue fulfilling their preparatory and decision-making functions. Life and work go on, though a bit differently.
By Antoine Kremer