We are living in difficult times and while the number of human COVID-19 infections continues to be on the rise, there is one patient that should not be forgotten: our parliamentary democracy. Judging from what we have seen in the past few weeks, the patient is in a serious condition and the prognosis is unclear.
As Members of the European Parliament, our role is to scrutinise the work of the Commission as well as member states’ governments, and to act as co-legislators together with the Council. In regular working mode, members prepare legislative files in committee and group meetings and work on the details in smaller circles such as cross-party teams of responsible rapporteurs called “shadow meetings”. But its features were never made for a crisis: firstly, there is the complexity and length of the procedures and secondly, the requirement of the physical presence of Members and the staff. Just like in many national parliaments, the adoption of a bill can easily span a time frame of several years. This time is used to discuss, argue or compromise on positions. The procedure involves the designation of a responsible parliamentary committee, the nomination of a “rapporteur” member, who then drafts the position and tries to incorporate parts of all major political forces in the house. A plenary debate and vote on a bill is a culmination, but merely the last most visible piece in a lengthy and elaborate process. All this works under normal circumstances.
Procedures under stress in an unprecedented crisis
However, this well-established process has never been tested by a crisis of the dimensions that we are witnessing now. The possibility of a major event that would prevent us from convening both in Brussels and Strasbourg clearly did not occur to the architects of the Parliament’s rules.
When the crisis hit the continent, the Parliament rightly decided to go into remote mode, in order to prevent the spread of the virus among members and staff. Ever since, virtually everyone has been working from home, most of us in our respective home countries. We adapted the annual schedule and held two makeshift plenary sessions to vote on EU emergency measures. However, during these plenary sessions, only the very few members who were physically present were allowed to speak. Votes were carried out by email, meaning members had to print out the ballot paper at home, make their crosses and send a scan or photo back to the Parliament. With all this came inevitable technical difficulties and security risks. The crucial work of committees, including the hearing of Commissioners and government figures, has been reduced to a bare minimum of virtual sessions.
A paralysed Parliament makes member states rejoice
And here it is, our suffering patient, struggling with its frailties. Votes are the arms of our democracy. But debates are at its heart. If we cannot have proper debates, our democratic patient will go into cardiac arrest. And there are more risks to account for: in digital form, a democracy can only survive if technological safety is secured – something that simple email-voting cannot guarantee.
While the Parliament is effectively paralysed, member states are rejoicing. Now is the time for them to go ahead with legislation they could only have dreamt of pushing through just a few months ago. Governments and heads of states are using the incapacitation of the parliamentary democracy to shine, using very visible aid projects as publicity, without much oversight by directly legitimised parliamentarians.
And in some countries, the diagnosis looks even worse: the Hungarian government’s final shift towards a COVID dictatorship presents us with a parliamentary constitutional democracy that looks more dead than alive. The Commission did not show its teeth. In the end, the most vocal criticism of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his antidemocratic move originated from the European Parliament. But how much political power can a hibernating parliament project?
The roadmap for parliamentary democracy to recover
So how are we going to save our patient? We have to start by providing room for deliberation. A parliament is only worthy of its name if its members can talk to each other. This will require a working IT infrastructure, including remote interpretation in the required languages. Unfortunately, the parliament’s meditated solutions are still works in progress, but we need a workable solution now.
Secondly, we need a voting method that is attack-proof. Technologies are available that would make tampering with the vote difficult. Those solutions would also spare members the awkwardness of having to print out ballot papers at their neighbour’s houses or at a nearby grocery shop, all of which has already happened to those lacking a printer at home. An online platform allowing the verification of members’ identities via video link and then issuing a one-time token for the vote would not only make the voting process safer, but also allow the establishment of a quorum during future plenaries.
Finally, and most importantly, we need political will and real crisis leadership to wake up from the coma we put ourselves into. We Greens are doing our bit to get the parliamentary work going again. Members of all political parties and all parliaments in the EU must make their voices heard. It is our duty to regain legislative sovereignty and parliamentary control. The very future of democracy depends on this just as much as on combating the virus.
Re-published in English from the web-site of Heinrich Boell Foundation-Brussels Office.