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Governing in times of social distancing: The effects of COVID-19 on EU decision-making

EU Governance / COMMENTARY
Johannes Greubel

Date: 24/04/2020

Virtual meetings are all well and good while Brussels perseveres COVID-19 restrictions, but will be insufficient to provide the same leeway that in-person decision-making does.

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting all aspects of our societies, including the functioning of our democratic systems. At the EU level, a soft lockdown, social distancing and other measures adopted to limit the spread of the virus impact the decision-making process by impeding most of the physical meetings usually held in Brussels. EU institutions have reacted with great flexibility to the new constraints by adapting their internal decision-making mechanisms and resorting to virtual meetings. However, those adjustments cannot fully substitute for in-person decision-making without compromising the effectiveness of the policy process.

In the future, the number of virtual meetings will probably have to increase given that social distancing and reduced travelling are likely to remain in place in the medium term. Nevertheless, in-person negotiations should also be maintained, albeit in a smaller and informal format. The Council presidency will play a significant role in preserving such physical meetings.

Institutional flexibility

The provisions adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have put enormous constraints on the work of the EU, which relies on a dense network of formal and informal contacts within and between European institutions and the member states. Over the past weeks, in order to stay operational during the crisis, every actor in the EU system has had to adapt to the restrictions by moving towards virtual diplomacy.

The European Council now regularly organises online summits. At the ministerial level, non-essential Council meetings have been postponed, while essential ones are held via informal videoconferences. The member states expanded the possibility of using the written procedure, thus making it possible for the Committee of Permanent Representatives (Coreper) to maintain decision-making capacity. Likewise, the European Commission has resorted to participating in College meetings virtually and mandated their non-essential staff to telework. Finally, the European Parliament reduced its number of plenary sessions and allowed remote attendance for all its meetings. It also adapted its voting rules, permitting parliamentarians to vote by email.[1]

High-level crisis management

While such adaptations are necessary, virtual negotiations also have multiple drawbacks, especially when they are organised as a means to deal with politically sensitive decisions in times of severe crises. The experience of the last decade shows that almost all major European compromises were found in all-night marathon sessions, in which EU leaders were confined in a room until a decision was reached. When much is at stake for all sides and emotions run high, in-person contact, bilateral or small-group talks on the peripheries, trust-building, body language or dinner discussions can be game-changing.

These elements are reduced or completely absent from videoconferences, as the German Chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed after the virtual European Council meeting on 26 March.[2] According to her, negotiating online is more difficult due to the lack of personal interaction and the limited flexibility to have bilateral talks.

Recent virtual summits and the experiences of senior diplomats[3] also suggest that, due to these constraints, getting everyone on the same page virtually is more timeconsuming, irrespective of the issues under consideration. Several European Council videoconferences failed to produce comprehensive measures to support member states in their fight against COVID-19. Although long processes of deliberation were also commonplace during the ‘euro crisis’, the constraints of virtual diplomacy amplify the troubles in finding agreement. The lack of in-person interaction seems to result in longer negotiations than physical meetings, not only due to the controversial nature of the issues on the table but also the limits of online summiting. However, in times of crisis the EU cannot afford lengthy and inconclusive online congregations – it must become time-efficient.

The Council’s institutional capacity

Many in-person activities are still ongoing among officials in the Council’s preparatory bodies and the Coreper level, but not without challenges. As described in an ardent letter the German Permanent Representative to the EU, Michael Clauß, addressed to his government on 6 April,[4] only 5 of the 21 meeting rooms in the Council are large enough for social distancing and sufficiently equipped for videoconferencing.

The Council’s preparatory bodies play a crucial role in fostering agreement between the member states, and decisions are prepared in Coreper before they reach the political level. The lack of logistical capacity reduces the possibility for preparatory bodies and Coreper to meet and engage in face-to-face, compromise-making discussions while still respecting ongoing COVID-19 provisions. Since ministerial meetings can only take place through videoconferences, the discussions in Coreper become even more critical, as they are now the highest level of in-person fora.

With social distancing rules reducing the Council’s capacity to hold meetings and thus the possibility for informal contacts between officials (i.e. ‘corridor diplomacy’), the efficiency of the Council’s decision-making machinery is at risk.

Hybrid diplomacy

COVID-19 will continue to limit the EU’s capacity to act and will keep hampering the already complex decision-making process of the European Union. While EU institutions have managed to keep things going, the Union’s multilayered system cannot sustain a solely virtual governance on the (European) Council level effectively for much longer. As social distancing is likely to continue in the foreseeable future, the Union should demonstrate even greater flexibility.

Hybrid governance – a mix of traditional face-to-face elements and online tools – has already been in effect over the past weeks, and will continue to play an important role in the months to come. As online negotiations seem to be less efficient and effective than physical meetings, EU institutions should be prepared to hold a higher number of online meetings than usual. At the highest political level, EU leaders should continue the almost weekly videoconferences they introduced at the start of the COVID-19 crisis.

At the same time, in an attempt to move to a ‘new institutional normal’ for the phase following the peak of the health crisis, virtual meetings should gradually be supplemented by an increasing number of face-to-face encounters. Online meetings provide an additional preparatory layer of governance between the technical and political levels. Refined hybrid diplomacy can improve the Union’s decision-making system in times of crisis – but there are limits to what they can achieve.

Once the ongoing health crisis has peaked, an increasing number of high-level meetings at the levels of ministers and EU leaders should, once again, be organised in person, in full compliance with social distancing rules. Given the gravity of the crisis, one can assume that all-night EU summits and Eurogroup meetings will play an essential role in the management of the pandemic, and not all of them can be held online. Virtual meetings can progress the debate, but major political breakthroughs will ultimately require EU leaders to physically meet in Brussels to reach a final compromise. This would be the case for not only the immediate crisis response, but also other controversial issues like the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF).

The role of the German Council Presidency

Flexibility is also the order of the day when it comes to preparatory meetings. As the capacity to have large meetings in the Council is reduced, member states should increase the number of informal meetings in smaller groups. Shuttle diplomacy led by the Council presidency will become even more important in the months to come.

The significance of the German Council Presidency in the second half of 2020 will thus increase, as much will depend on its ability to steer discussions and act as an honest broker by forging joint positions. This complicates Germany’s six months at the helm of the Council when it will also have to steer the EU through the economic aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis and deal with the highly complex process of reaching a final compromise on the MFF.

Last but certainly not least, the COVID-19 crisis should also trigger a more structural debate about the EU’s capacity to act in times of crisis. In 2019, the EPC already proposed introducing an emergency decision-making procedure that would strengthen the EU’s ability to react faster in times of crisis. This could be achieved by, for example, moving away from unanimity or enabling Commission proposals to “be approved with a qualified majority vote or rejected with a reverse (qualified) majority vote”.[5] It should also be accompanied by an emergency funding mechanism, including unallocated funds which could be used as a first response in an immediate crisis.[6] The current crisis again shows that the Union needs to prepare itself for future storms, and the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe is an excellent opportunity to do just that.


Johannes Greubel is Junior Policy Analyst of the European Politics and Institutions programme.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

[1]    Council of the European Union (2020), Council decision on a temporary derogation from the Council’s Rules of Procedure in view of the travel difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in the Union, 6891/20, Brussels; General Secreteriat of the Council, Continuation of decision-making in the Council and the European Council, Brussels, 12 March 2020; European Commission Coronavirus: measures introduced for Commission staff, Brussels, 12 March 2020; Del Monte, Micaela (2020), Remote voting in the European Parliament and national parliaments, PE 649.348, Brussels: European Parliamentary Research Service.
[2]    Merkel, Angela (2020), “Telefon-Pressekonferenz von Bundeskanzlerin Merkel nach den Videokonferenzen der G20 und des Europäischen Rats”, Berlin, 26 March 2020.
[3]    Heath, Ryan, “For global diplomats, Zoom is not like being in the room“, POLITICO, 17 April 2020.
[4]    Müller, Peter, “Corona-Folgen für die deutsche Ratspräsidentschaft: Deutscher EU-Botschafter schreibt Brandbrief ans Kanzleramt“, Der Spiegel, 07 April 2020.
[5] Pilati, Marta and Fabian Zuleeg (2019), “A nimble and responsive EU? Predicting unpredictability: A new approach to EU policymaking“ in “Yes, we should! EU priorities for 2019-2024”, Challenge Europe, Volume 24, Brussels: European Policy Centre, p.153.
[6]    Ibid.

Photo credits:
Liselotte Sabroe / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP

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