Coronavirus and Parliaments of Europe
Over the past three weeks, the Mercator European Dialogue has monitored and informed its members on measures and responses to COVID-19 taken by national parliaments in Europe. Thirteen parliamentarians from eight countries used this opportunity to exchange national perspectives, best-practices and concerns in an online dialogue hosted by the Mercator European Dialogue.
Since its emergence, the coronavirus crisis has severely impacted our daily lives. While the political focus and media coverage concentrate on the actions taken by governments and their leadership in responding to the situation, less attention has been given to the work and functionality of national parliaments in Europe. However, the question of how parliaments are adapting to the situation is highly relevant as they play a key role in scrutinizing the government and representing citizens faced with limitations to their civil rights and freedoms.
The Mercator European Dialogue closely interacts with parliamentarians from all over the EU and carefully follows the developments in national parliaments. The nature of this emergency turns out to be challenging for parliaments for two main reasons:
- Governments need to react quickly to implement policies that support the healthcare, economy and social sectors. Most member states have thus proclaimed a state of emergency to give governments extraordinary competencies for the time of the crisis. Parliaments are now faced with the question of how they can continue to exercise their function of scrutinizing the work of the government in such fast-paced processes.
- Parliaments are the central institution of democracy, where debates between elected representatives take place. Their work relies on personal interactions and face-to-face conversations. This means that the social distancing measures put in place to contain the pandemic have seriously impacted the daily work of parliamentarians in their committees, as well as the debates in plenaries.
Parliaments in Europe are responding with drastic measures to the circumstances they find themselves in. Across different countries, there is a variety of different actions taken by parliaments to find a balance between exercising their functions while at the same time reducing the risk of infections in meetings and plenary sessions.
How are parliaments in Europe dealing with the Corona crisis?
The Mercator European Dialogue compiled the different measures implemented until 25 March 2020. Our updates take into account the modus operandi during the corona crisis adopted by various national parliaments and some inter-parliamentary institutions such as the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the NATO parliamentary assembly.
It is the mandate of the Mercator European Dialogue to support parliamentarians in their work, and we greatly value and encourage initiatives by our members. As a reaction to the crisis, a member of the network suggested to organise a Solidarity Call for Parliamentarians in Europe. On Wednesday 25 March 2020, 13 Members of Parliament from eight European countries (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Malta) joined the call. The parliamentarians told each other about situation in their respective countries and engaged in an open conversation covering national and local challenges and best practices, as well as some initial steps towards European solidarity and common solutions.
Highlights of the conversation:
- There was great consensus and concern that European solidarity is lacking in the current corona crisis and that according action must be taken. A participant from Germany concluded: “We as European national parliamentarians should send out a sign of solidarity”.
- Parliamentarians perceive strong measures taken by governments as currently needed. Yet, a growing concern towards the ability of parliaments to uphold scrutiny was voiced.
- “If we want open borders, we need the same approaches within the EU, and this is essential for border regions.” This point was made by a Belgian participant who shared how Belgian restrictions were bypassed by citizens traveling to the Netherlands, where measures of restriction of movement had not yet been implemented.
- Parliamentarians identified the need of a joint European procurement and production of medical equipment despite a missing European approach to the health sector.
- A Lithuanian parliamentarian asked for shared experience regarding measures to support people who depend on others for supplies while being in quarantine. Best practice examples were shared among parliamentarians; Denmark has great, self-organized citizen initiatives which offer grocery delivery to the people in need. In Greece, municipalities and local authorities offer grocery delivery to people in need through their “help me at home” service. Similarly, local authorities in Malta offer support through the delivery of groceries and medicine. A Maltese parliamentarian shared how volunteers are calling citizens from his office to identify concrete needs of citizens.
- The aftermath of this crisis will impose immense economic challenges on all member states of the EU and all parliamentarians agreed that this can only be tackled through European action ideally in the form of a common EU package to shoulder the burden.
A cross-party initiative promoting cooperation and dialogue
During the call, parliamentarians from different parties expressed the idea to launch a solidarity initiative. Thanks to the coordination and exchange at the Mercator European Dialogue call, they joined forces and have published their European call for solidarity, with support from 50+ Members of Parliament representing 25 Member States, at http://insieme-together.eu/ and in several media outlets across Europe.
The call fostered a very fruitful exchange in the interest of sharing parliamentary practice and facilitating inter-parliamentary communication. It showed that there is a need for more informal exchanges between parliamentarians in Europe, especially when institutional and official channels cannot react as fast.
The Mercator European Dialogue will continue to work to connect parliamentarians across the political spectrum and provide them with support structures to navigate the European political arena.