Meetings cancelled, workers sent home, conferences postponed as EU officials and lobbyists try to cope with the pandemic
As the coronavirus crisis deepens, work in the Brussels “bubble” of European Commission officials, legislators and lobbyists has also become ever-more disrupted.
Day by day, as the alarm mounted around Europe, more Brussels meetings have been cancelled, work moved on-line, and conferences postponed. Then on 12 March, as the Belgian government was preparing an order to close down classes, restaurants and most public gatherings across the country, the Commission announced that from the 16th of March onward it will allow teleworking-only for all but a select few whose job descriptions specifically require an on-site presence.
“The scale of this is so extraordinary,” said Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, a group that often meets with EU research and education officials to discuss policy on behalf of its academic members. “We had one-to-one meetings (on 11 March) in the Commission, but we agreed those will be the last physical meetings for a while. We’ve shifted all of our meetings online,” he said.
The tiny virus has had an unprecedented impact on Europe, as Italy closed its borders, Madrid went into lockdown, flights have been deserted, and schools and universities shut.
In Brussels on 15 March, special powers to deal with COVID-19 were granted to Belgium’s caretaker government, led by the country’s first female prime minster, Sophie Wilmès.
Commission sites in Italy were among the first to be affected by coronavirus turmoil. Staff based at the Joint Research Centre’s big site at Ispra, Italy, have already been teleworking since the Italian government issued the infamous ‘I Stay At Home’ decree on 9 March.
Barbara Piotrowski, press and media officer of the JRC describes the site as being “of highest concern” for the European Commission’s research hub. “Formally the site is open, but with access limited to essential functions that require a physical presence and the vast majority of staff are ‘smart working’ as recommended by the Italian government,” she said.
At the European Parliament, the vast majority of secretariat staff, as well as people connected with political groups, are teleworking where possible. The MEPs’ duties have been reduced to solely lawmaking, meaning no meetings with lobbyists or constituents for the foreseeable future. Many of them are in their constituencies, as this week has been declared a “white week”, meaning official meetings and committees have been called off.
But some legislative work continues, remotely. Seán Kelly, an Irish member of the European Parliament Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE), said: “There are a number of important policies currently on the table in the ITRE Committee, notably the new strategies on industries and SMEs, along with the European Green Deal. This work continues, albeit away from Parliament buildings, and I hope that we will be ready to continue and finalise these discussions as soon as possible upon our return.”
Normally “white weeks” only occur in August and Christmas, when parliamentary duties are at a minimum. For some, this unscheduled break means extra time to catch up on tasks that are generally impossible this time of year. “I might have the chance to actually read my emails,” joked one assistant. There will only be a skeleton staff inside the European Parliament building this week, including an energetic cleaning team that have been spotted vigorously scrubbing door knobs and lift buttons over the past week.
Council goes online
Meanwhile, in the third arm of EU governance, the Council, European leaders skipped their usual day-long meetings and engaged in an entirely online video conference on 10 March, where measures to control the coronavirus pandemic were debated. For Council staff, “work is ongoing for those working parties considered to be essential,” said Omar Cutajar, Malta’s technical attaché for industry and innovation. “The Research Working Party and the Structural Funds Working Party are amongst these "essential" meetings.”
The latest move by the Commission to safeguard public health by sending its staff home will come as no great surprise to the Brussels-based research community, as in-person meetings with the Commission, the Council and the Parliament have been reduced for the past two weeks, causing experts and organisations that work with the institutions to re-think how they do business.
“Prevention comes first,” says Laurence Legros, Executive Director of the Federation of European Academies of Medicine (FEAM), when asked what she thinks about the shift from in-person events to webinars. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s not responsible to put people at risk.”
Last week, in the Commission’s education and culture directorate-general, one official told of meetings held last week with people standing in each corner of a room, as far away from each other as possible, having to shout at each other to be heard, in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus. Since 16 March, not even those kind of meetings are happening and most staff are under orders to work from home.
In theory, moving meetings online seems simple, but in practice, there are difficulties. High-speed internet connections and teleconferencing apps enable online conferences on a scale that would have been unimaginable just ten years ago. But just because you can have an 8-hour-long meeting online, should you?
“We’ve shortened day-long meetings to 3-hour meetings,” says Palmowski. “It’s tough, but that happens. The engagement with the EU will continue online and in other forms.”
Another lobby group, the European Association of Research and Technology Associations (EARTO), also confirmed that two in-person meetings that were supposed to last for six hours were shortened to two-hour webinars. They have also turned all their working group meetings – typically 20-30 people – into conference calls.
With so many now teleworking, the crisis has also given new prominence to some EU digital efforts. For instance, the European Open Science Cloud is a long-standing EU effort to build a federated data-sharing network of researchers across the EU. Cathrin Stöver, co-chair of the EOSC , said: "For us, it is clear that public emergencies such as the current COVID-19 pandemic emphasises the need for an EOSC. We observe many institutions are opening up access to their data relating to the virus, and even commercial publishers bringing down their paywalls."
Travel bans and “social distancing” mean that even if you were brave enough to hold a live event, registrants might not come. The European Academies Science Advisory Council launched a policy report on plastics and the circular economy at the Academy Palace in Brussels on Wednesday of this week, but unfortunately only half of the participants that they expected turned up. And a much-anticipated series of policy announcements from the new Commission – an industrial strategy and a circular economy plan – got barely noticed in a media world preoccupied by coronavirus coverage.
And generally, non-corona research is starting to be affected by researchers unable to get into the lab. “My personal feeling is that opportunities for geoscience-policy are reduced as a result of the virus,” says Chloe Hill, policy officer for the European Geosciences Union. “Not only have the priorities of policy makers shifted to deal with the outbreak but new working conditions mean that events and activities where policymakers may have met and interacted with scientists are postponed or cancelled.”
For many organisations, large-scale events that were part of their yearly programme have had to be side-lined. EARTO’s Annual Conference in Barcelona, an event that was set to attract 250 participants at the end of March, was called off earlier this week, while FEAM have had to postpone three events scheduled for March, two of which were sponsored by the Croatian Presidency. The European Geosciences Union has cautiously postponed registration for their week-long General Assembly, which is currently scheduled for the beginning of May.
The costs of cancelling such events have not been verified, but one can expect that for large events, the bill would be tens of thousands.
Editor’s note: This article was updated 17 March to reflect new developments.