Coronavirus is dominating the headlines. Not only is the economy slowing down, but so are most of the policy activities in Brussels. Starting from mid-March, the majority of meetings and events have either been cancelled or moved online. Employees of most Brussels-based organisations and EU institutions have been advised to work from home.
Due to various restrictions and health safety directives, the EU institutions have had to adapt to new ways of working. Earlier this month, the European Parliament changed its Strasbourg plenary into a one-day mini plenary in Brussels with no voting. The next Strasbourg plenary, originally set to begin on 30 March and end on 2 April, will also become a mini-session, taking place from 1 to 2 April in Brussels. EP President David Sassoli, together with political group leaders, decided to hold an extraordinary plenary session next Thursday, 26 March, to allow for the implementation of special measures in relation to the coronavirus outbreak. Voting during that session will be allowed via email by printing out voting lists and scanning them back for manual counting by the EP. This may become the new voting system until restrictions are lifted.
European Commission and European Council
The European Commission and the European Council have been cancelling all non-essential or non-urgent meetings. On 16 March, the Croatian Presidency decided that only essential meetings will be held this month, including the Foreign Affairs Council (in agreement with the High Representative Josep Borrell), the General Affairs Council, and the European Council. These measures are limited to the month of March until further notice. Important meetings, such as the FAC (development) scheduled for 14 May, are still on the agenda. As the situation continues to evolve, further limitations to official meetings may be extended beyond the end of this month.
The main concern for EU leaders over the past few weeks has been how to keep the EU functioning and how to take decisions without being in the same room. Last week EU Ambassadors discussed the possibility of adopting a package of exceptional Council working measures, which would allow its members who are unable to attend a meeting physically to do so via videoconference. All 27 EU leaders would thus be able to hold weekly video conferences to discuss progress and additional measures needed. However, the Croatian Presidency has not yet agreed on when and how often such video conferences would be held, and how operational decisions could be made.
European Council President Charles Michel is also finding his way around this new reality. He has already organised two virtual meetings with heads of states and is planning some more in place of regular summits. Last week, Politico Europe reported on the virtual meetings and decision-making.
The Commission has postponed the release of several publications, whilst the majority of its staff is working from home. Two to three designated employees will deal with COVID-19 and liaise with industry stakeholders in the Commissioners’ Cabinets. The Commission has announced that the daily press briefing will be entirely virtual.
The coronavirus has also interrupted the normal policy cycle and the advocacy activities around the new Commission’s first 100 days in office. The College of Commissioners published an updated programme for their discussions over the coming months.
There is a clear change of focus on priorities for the EU and Member States. The new (possibly short-term) priorities include managing the migration crisis on the Greece-Turkey border, stopping the spread of COVID-19 and mitigating a possible economic recession. To fight against the economic fallout from the coronavirus, eurozone countries mobilised up to 1% of their GDP (around €120 billion).
What does this mean for development cooperation and CONCORD’s priorities?
There is a strong chance that the spread of the coronavirus, and the subsequent economic slowdown, may overshadow international development and Agenda 2030. Although some key policy processes may continue, they will likely mean little involvement and consultation of civil society organisations.
The EU-Africa Strategy
On 9 March, the EC issued the joint communication ‘Towards a comprehensive strategy with Africa’, starting a process of establishing future relations between EU and Africa. EC and European External Action Service will now liaise with African partners, CSOs, local authorities, the private sector, EU Member States, the EP and other stakeholders in the run up to the EU-AU Summit taking place in October 2020, as well as during the stakeholders side-events ahead of the Summit (e.g. Africa Week in Brussels planned for late September).
It is not clear yet how the current situation will impact the necessary next steps before the summit (if confirmed), especially consultations with CSOs in Europe and in Africa. The Council Africa Working Party have not had their meetings over the past weeks, and no meetings (virtual or real) are planned for the moment. The working group is only dealing with urgent issues, using written procedures. FAC Council conclusions on the strategy planned in April (normal FAC, not development) might be postponed to June.
The Gender Action Plan III
The consultation on the roadmap for GAPIII is now open until 3 April. We are expecting the GAPIII consultation to be shared any day now (according to the Commission, the GAPIII consultation will run from mid-March to mid-April). While it is positive that consultations can continue online during these uncertain times – especially because it allows all types of CSOs to contribute, both big and small, in partner countries and in the global North – our digital systems are not yet effective enough to deliver the level of interaction that a face-to-face meeting could.
The MFF Process
The February summit did not reach an agreement and since then, the MFF negotiations have been put on hold until the situation in Europe is stabilised. It will restart once the President of the Council Charles Michel presents an updated negotiating box (expected around May). The COVID-19 crisis and the delay in the MFF negotiations have had a tremendous impact on the programming process of the new Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI). As a result of EU Delegations in partner countries closing down or shifting to teleworking, the pre-programming process will also slow down. It is anticipated that the COVID-19 crisis will have huge consequences on the implementation of the 2021 EU budget and the disbursement of the NDICI next year.
Several meetings, which are relevant for our work, such as the EP DEVE hearing on inequalities and the global Policy Forum on Development, in which CONCORD has been actively involved, have been postponed until further notice.
The CONCORD Policy and Advocacy Team will keep you updated on any relevant changes.