COVID-19 considerably impedes the EU machinery. Serious delays – and changes in priorities – will be the result

By Michael Tscherny, Partner

Whilst Europe’s leaders are still firefighting, the longer-term impact of the coronavirus crisis on the way the EU functions is already becoming clear. Recent attempts at “keeping business going” paint a grim picture. The European institutions and their decision-making processes were not designed to operate under the constraints we currently face. Even if a progressive return to “normal” were to start in May, work programmes and strategies drafted in the early months of the EU’s current five-year cycle are now wastepaper or in need of deep review.

Think of the way the European Union makes laws: it is a protracted process involving many players, long series of meetings, and patient consensus- or majority-building. It requires skilled negotiators, horse trading, informal gatherings as well as choreographed parliamentary committee or ministerial meetings. Elected officials and experts travel to Brussels in droves every working day of the year; they rely on interpreters and on rubbing shoulders with their peers from the other Member States. Countless events, lunch and dinner debates provide the humus on which initiatives grow and decisions mature.

Now try to replicate this through home-working and video conferences….  You get it: there’s only so much of the action that can be moved online.

Let’s take a look at how the key actors in Europe’s multi-layer, multi-national and multi-lingual political cosmos adapt – or fail to do so. And what that means for the rest of us.

Parliaments everywhere struggle, and the EP is no exception

Starting with the European Parliament, the institution that finds it most tricky to switch from meeting rooms with plush chairs, surrounded by interpreters’ booths, to online debates. Whilst other organisations may routinely use videoconferences or have at least experimented with them, the EP was caught unprepared. How do you conduct a committee meeting remotely? Can MEPs manage to get through their daily duties when their staff are spread out – some at home in Brussels, some in the constituency but without the possibility of getting together, and others elsewhere in Europe?

More importantly, much parliamentary business is conducted informally: MEPs meet in small groups to strategize, their assistants hash out amendments over a coffee. Signing a petition can be done electronically but hammering out compromises with other political groups is a different game. Moreover, as the short emergency plenary session two weeks ago showed, the EP has no practical and trustworthy remote voting system in place for its 705 Members for anything beyond mere rubber-stamping.

No wonder that most “meaningful” parliamentary activity had to be put on ice and will resume only little by little, technology and political will allowing. The institution is currently experimenting with new tools to hold meetings with over 100 active participants in several languages but it remains a stopgap solution.

Hold your Council – decision-making and social distancing are hard to reconcile

The situation is hardly better at the Council, in normal times just as much a hive of activity as the halls of Parliament: countless working parties discuss proposals from protecting bees to sanctions against Syria; Ambassadors of the Member States prepare ministerial meetings, and Ministers themselves or indeed the Heads of Government jet in regularly to attend formal Council sessions.

Work in all those fora tends to be quite ritualized and those rituals don’t easily translate to virtual meetings. There may be plenty of videoconferencing tools used by individuals or corporations but there’s none that can replicate the methods and feel of a real meeting of a Council working group: the signals given across the table, two attachés sorting out a drafting matter in a corner, the quick huddle between Presidency, Commission representatives and secretariat during a break…

Recent weeks have seen a flurry of Ministerial video meetings – but they all are informal discussions. “Real” meetings are required to take formal decisions, from adopting the agenda to taking votes. There is, however, a work-around which allows the Council to remain functional, within narrow limits: the so-called written procedure where a legal act is deemed adopted unless a blocking minority of countries raise objections by a given deadline. This is how the first important decisions of the EU’s response to COVID-19 got approved. It works because there are “only” 27 Members and discipline is greater than in the EP.

The Commission: Keep re-inventing… and think of Europe

The Commission may fare better in these unprecedented circumstances, as it doesn’t normally rely on interpretation for its in-house meetings and doesn’t have issues with quora or other complexities inherent in the functioning of the Council’s and EP. Key officials often know each other personally, which makes a big difference if you have to communicate not in person but with the help of technology. Also, most Commission staff are based in Brussels, whereas Council meetings see an influx of participants from the Member States and the EP is known as a travelling circus.

But even the Commission will struggle for months to come: With no possibility to go and speak directly to MEPs or all the other informal stakeholder contacts that are so crucial to EU decision-shaping, its output will necessarily suffer. And what good is it for the Commission to make a proposal when the other  institutions aren’t able to make progress on the file. The trilogues are another good example of the current freeze in decision-making. These informal three-party negotiations between EP, Council and Commission to reach agreement in the crucial last stage of the legislative process, often criticised for their secrecy have been paused because no-one can figure out how to conduct them remotely.

A heavy impact on the EU policy agenda

The outlook is not pretty. The new Commission, barely 100 days in office, had plenty of ambitions: a new “Green Deal”, the digitisation of Europe’s economy, a more “geopolitical” Europe. Now, just a few weeks later, nothing matters more than battling the virus and managing the worst recession to hit the world economy since World War II. Like it or not, the new priorities will push many of the bold projects announced since last December into the background. Most will need to be revised. For now, the official line remains that the Commission is sticking to its guns but the weeks ahead will show this isn’t credible.

Firstly, all energies will be devoted to handling the fall-out from the Coronavirus and to staving off a mortal threat to the European project itself. The rest of 2020, when EU countries will struggle to get their economies running again, will just not allow to focus on yet another round of emission targets for cars or proposals to change insurance directives. The post-corona agenda will be shaped by realism – not by choice but by simple necessity.

Secondly, travel restrictions, limits to physical meetings and some social distancing will likely remain in place for some time still, since each country fears annihilating its current painful efforts through a “second wave” of imported cases. COVID-19 will therefore impede the EU machinery for months to come; it simply cannot handle the logistics.

Hard choices to be made, dictated by what is possible

The resulting capacity constraints will, sooner or later, force the Union’s three main institutions to agree what dossiers they can handle and will prioritize. Their hands are pretty tied: certain issues require annual decisions or clearly have top priority – the EU budget for instance – but many others will get kicked into the long grass, simply because of a lack of bandwidth, both literally and in the figurative sense.

In a letter to his government revealed by “Der Spiegel”, Germany’s Ambassador to the EU points to a reduction of “the throughput capacity in the Council to well below 25 percent”. Videoconferencing facilities are inadequate and rely on commercially available encryption technology. Confidentiality cannot be ensured and there are no plans for an “EU Intranet”, writes Michael Clauß, concluding that “the EU legislative process is slowing down considerably”. Clauß had been gearing up to be one of the key players during the second semester of 2020 when Germany will hold the Council Presidency – which will now very much be overshadowed by the COVID-19 fall-out.

Coronavirus has infected the EU system more than you may realize. Its symptoms – reduced capacity to act and even partial paralysis – are serious. The entire EU decision-making system will therefore need to focus on preserving its vital functions before it can resume any normal activities. And it will look different once it emerges from convalescence.

Still, the EU remains instrumental for business – the competitive landscape, all kinds of regulations, and corporations’ license to operate will continue to be shaped in Brussels. Right now, we may be in the midst of an epic storm, with no visibility as to where we are heading. It matters all the more to be quick to understand the contours of Europe’s post-Corona environment.