On Thursday, 26 March, for the first time in history, Members of the European Parliament were able to exercise remote voting, without the need for their actual physical presence in the parliamentary chamber. This is a first, and as President David Sassoli pointed out, it will not only be for the EP, but for democratic parliaments in general. The extraordinary plenary session – which saw a massive (virtual) attendance, with 687 MEPs taking part in the first vote – had been convened to replace the classic Strasbourg session, and urgently scheduled to approve the first economic measures proposed by the European Commission in the last weeks to counter the COVID-19 pandemic.
This will not be the last session where MEPs will be guaranteed remote voting. The coronavirus emergency has forced Parliament to markedly change its calendar, cancelling all plenary sessions in Strasbourg for the coming months and replacing them with restricted sessions in Brussels lasting two half days each. From now until September, the Parliament will meet in plenary for just four days in total, still guaranteeing Members the possibility of voting “from home”.
Indeed, extraordinary problems require extraordinary solutions. So, in order to prevent that the widespread measures of social distancing and limitation of mobility needed to deal with the pandemic could undermine the democratic process, the European Parliament managed to find in its Rules of Procedure a way to guarantee the continuity of its work, allowing MEPs to carry out public roles given that it would not be possible for them to do so in person.
The extraordinary solution, put in place to prevent the interruption of social life being followed by the suspension of the democratic process, is even more necessary at a time when parliaments (not only the European Parliament, but also national parliaments) are debating and approving measures that deeply impact the daily life of every citizen. Whether they are provisions severely restricting personal freedom – the most significant for Western countries since the end of the Second World War – or powerful measures aimed at containing the disruptive effects of the suspension of social and economic activities.
Technically, the EP decision involves an exception to the rules of procedure prepared by the Bureau, which allows for voting by an alternative electronic voting procedure. In practice, MEPs receive the voting card by email, which, once completed (with a simple “yes” or “no”) and signed, must be “returned”, scanned or photographed, to a mailbox specifically set up by the Parliament (for the vote to be valid, the communication must be sent from a MEP’s official e-mail address). The President, assisted by the Parliament’s Secretariat, then determines the result of the vote, which is recorded in the minutes and then made public.
Parliament is not the only European institution to have to deal with social containment measures. The Commission – whose internal decision-making process is less affected by the restrictive measures because of its essentially executive nature has adopted internal precautionary measures in recent weeks. It has imposed teleworking on all officials who do not carry out essential tasks, and turned all meetings or events with officials from other countries into videoconferences (this is, for example, making it particularly complicated to carry out diplomacy activities).
On the other hand, a decision similar to the EP was necessary to ensure the continuity of the EU Council’s activities (from ministerial summits to preparatory meetings), since in this case the physical presence of national delegations and the exercise of voting are necessary to carry out the work. In order to ensure institutional continuity, the Council adopted last week a temporary derogation to its rules of procedure to facilitate the adoption of decisions by written procedure. The derogation, which will apply for one month and may be renewed if circumstances require, allows Ambassadors to the EU to decide to use the written procedure in accordance with the voting rule applicable for the adoption of the act itself (in practice, the derogation removes the unanimity requirement for the use of the written procedure and will thus enable the Council to take most decisions by qualified majority).