I will share with you the key lessons and challenges that we had in the European Parliament during the Covid-19 pandemic. I prepared this content with Mr. Ludovic Delépine.
So, parliaments describe themselves as central places for democracy, a physical place where people communicate and make decisions, while being face to face. I would like to underline that it’s a physical place and it’s where people need to be face to face. For the very essence of the parliament it’s very important that people are there, they can meet, they can talk, they can share their experiences.
Also, another thing to underline is that since 1945, the European Parliament neither in practice, nor in theory has ever dealt with an eventual possibility that the MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) could not meet.
The European Parliament did have a digitalisation process before the covid-19 crisis. The two main parts of digitalisation was moving towards a paperless parliament and this means replacing paper with digital formats and introducing new means to circulate information, such as tablets, apps and, on the other hand, to expand communication and information services to the outside world.
We broadcast meetings through TV and streaming services so citizens can follow our committee and plenary meetings, as well as press conferences. If citizens do not have the chance to tune in, then they can go to our website and find previous broadcastings.
Also, citizens can find a huge amount of information on our parliament’s website, not only legislation, but all sorts of information. It is accessible, not only to european citizens but to citizens all over the world.
In the past few years, the European Parliament has been very active also on social media, this was also an effort to get closer to the younger generations via Facebook and Twitter.
With the covid crisis, there were two big challenges that the European Parliament faced as well as other parliaments. First of all, how we can meet and how decisions and voting can be done. A remote meeting and voting possibility had to be done. It may sound easy, but it had to be done in a secure and legal way.
I would like to underline a few elements about the European Parliament.
The European Parliament has 705 members and they are represented from 27 different member States, thus it’s a very diverse institution.
The European Parliament faced a big challenge and became a digital organisation almost overnight. We had to ensure critical democratic infrastructure would be functioning and, in particular of the plenary sessions, the parliamentary committees and the governing bodies.
The European Parliament has three working places, the one in Brussels in Belgium, where we have most of the staff and the colleagues, where I am based as well. And then we have Strasbourg in France as well as in Luxembourg colleagues. The plenary sessions are normally held in Strasbourg, but as the lockdown came all over Europe in March 2020, our plenary of March was, unfortunately, not possible because of the physical restrictions and the lockdown in many european countries. Basically it was the first plenary session that we faced the remote meeting and the remote voting for members of the parliament. I must say that it was successful at the end because, on the 26th of March 2020, under the lockdown, we had the plenary where we managed to have 75 MEPs out of the 705 who could be there and the other MEPs could connect remotely.
Slowly then, between March and June 2020, more MEPs could travel. Restrictions were lighter, so there were more MEPs who could come to Brussels to participate in the plenary sessions. The remote voting became possible because the Bureau of the European Parliament made the decision on the 20th of March 2020. All our document systems are done with a document management system.
We have a secure solution guided by an impact assessment, including General Data Protection Regulation.
The solution for remote conferences was a software as a service with interpretation in 24 languages. The European Parliament is an institution that guarantees all MEPs to speak in their mother tongue and there is interpretation on-premises software for sensitive subjects.
The other Europe Parliament solution, that became possible by the Bureau decision in March, was composed of emails containing scanned ballots physically signed and sent by MEPs through their account with two steps authentication.
Since March 2020, we have had the following three priorities in the European Parliament that was underlined by our Secretary General. This is the protection of MEPs and staff, business continuity and practical solidarity.
The first one, protection of staff and MEPs, we have a temperature check before entering to the European Parliament, so all staff and MEPs measure their temperature. It is obligatory to wear a mask on the premises.
Interpretation used to be done by three people in the box, now there is one person. There is a hundred percent fresh air in the European Parliament premises, there’s no reused air. There’s medical cleaning, there’s physical distance ensured. There were ID equipment handed out to colleagues and to administrative staff as well as MEPs and their assistants to ensure working from outside department premises.
There were around 9,000 equipment pieces distributed and we can say that all European Parliament staff, including also assistants to parliamentarians, have the equipment to work just as if they would be in parliament premises.
Furthermore, business continuity was very important from the very beginning. The main two elements that I already referred to the remote interpretation as well as the remote voting. Remote voting and participation, as I already explained, was successfully managed.
I would also like to highlight practical solidarity because in the time of emergency, time of extraordinary events, just like what has been happening in Europe and all around the world, solidarity is needed. The European Parliament showed its practical solidarity, which means that we offered one of the European Parliament buildings in Brussels to host 100 vulnerable women in Brussels. And we also distributed 200.000 meals to local people in need.
About lessons learned and challenges, I would like to underline that the remote culture was not common, since remote working was not a daily practice within the European Parliament premises. We had to make guidelines establishing prior testing with the technology as well.
For example, we realized that our interpreters had a huge difficulty when they weren’t seeing the face of the MEP.
Also managing and moderating remote meetings is a challenge and it’s a continuous learning. I recommend the usage of remote solutions when participants cannot be present onsite. The majority of the administration works in teleworking from home and while going once, twice, three times a week to the parliament.
MEPs can go and participate at meetings or at the plenary but they have the possibility to participate remotely and they have the equipment to do that. And, as I already explained, there were mobile equipment for members and the staff already distributed.
The European Parliament has an ICT strategy and plan, so this crisis triggered this plan. Just one example to you: the equipment was already distributed to a certain percentage of staff as well as all the MEPs.
We started the digitalisation process in 2019, so this was already done. What happened is that the pandemic triggered a faster process, a four year plan became like a few months or maybe even less a few weeks process. So, it triggered some aspects that maybe were not foreseen on the plan such as teleworking.
Teleworking was not a common practice in the European Parliament but we were forced to adapt. Our administration did a survey and concluded that it was a success. We managed also to help our administrative staff with the equipment, they could work from home the same way as if they would have been in the office. They had the computer, they had access to the database, to the legislation, we had the digital signature, it was really a smooth working process.
The first few weeks were the most stressful, especially because we had the plenary also coming up, but we did a successful implementation in a very short period.
I must say that the first few weeks were very difficult because of the lockdown. Physically it was not possible for MEPs to travel from the 27 member States but even that time in March 2020 we had 75 members who were there, in the premises. In April and May 2020, we had between 200/400. MEPs, strangely, wanted to come back and to be present. They think it’s essential to be there and to have the physical contact to make the democratic process work. I’m sure that our MEPs have contact with their national colleagues in both formal as well as informal ways. We also, as European Parliament, have contact with national parliaments as well as via the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
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