How the pandemic strained the European Parliament’s digital infrastructure

Commentary

The coronavirus lockdown caught the IT infrastructure of the European Parliament unprepared for such severe emergency conditions. The EU's parliamentary work comes with distinct political sensitivities and responsibilities for transparency that complicate the legislative process. Any measures taken to introduce digital tools now and in the future must safeguard vital democratic principles.  

As the 27 countries of the European Union issued stay-home orders and began shutting their borders in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the bloc's parliament in Brussels faced its first challenge to remote-operating procedures: plenary votes on three urgent economic and public-health measures. It was just one of many tech-related challenges the European Parliament faced, as it sought to adapt to working remotely during the pandemic while remaining accessible to the EU's almost 448 million constituents

European citizens participate in the functioning of the European Union via the 705 representatives they elect to serve in the European Parliament. Given its function as “co-legislator” – meaning it shares power to adopt legislative proposals with the Council of the European Union that is made up of 27 national ministers (one per state) -- the Parliament adopts, rejects or modifies legislation that regulates lives, livelihoods and trade across the bloc. 

To fully exercise this duty and comply with their legal obligations without impairment, members of the European Parliament are granted a free and independent mandate, meaning they have to vote on an individual, and personal basis. This guarantees that they are able to freely express their opinions and vote without any external interference. In order to perform their duties to the extent possible, they equally have the right to participate actively in the work of the Parliament’s committees and delegations and consider any issues under the Parliament’s authority.

In addition to this representation, the EU's governing treaties also give every citizen the right to participate in the democratic life of the union. Decisions by all institutions, including the Parliament, are supposed to be taken as openly and transparently as possible.
These fundamental rules of a democratically operating Parliament have been sorely tested during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Pressure on democratic checks and balances within the voting system

The decision-making process in the Parliament starts with the tabling of a draft report or opinion. This phase was largely unimpacted by the pandemic, as members and their staffs have virtual access to their desktops, a web-based amendment-tabling tool called AT4AM, and the capability to remotely sign amendments. 

When it comes to voting and the need to ensure that votes are exercised on an individual and personal basis and that the integrity of votes is preserved, normal operations with physical presence provide simple procedures. Individual participation is verified by the parliamentary staff. As a general practice, members vote by a show of hands, unless the chair decides to use electronic voting instead. In addition, the option to request roll call votes allows MEPs to make sure that the integrity of votes is fully preserved, and their vote is properly registered and transparent.

The first major challenge to remote procedures during the pandemic was the March 26 plenary votes on three measures. With economic activity shutting down in many countries, urgent proposals were crafted for consideration by the Parliament to channel EU financial-rescue funds as soon as possible to EU citizens, regions and countries, and to adopt measures to tackle the public-health emergency. 

The Bureau of the European Parliament, one of the political bodies, agreed to a temporary alternative voting procedure to allow members to participate remotely. This meant that members had to print, sign and send back the ballot paper via email to the secretariat of the Parliament, and the existing voting system was adapted to allow the recording of the votes. It wasn’t the most convenient way of voting, but members accepted the process under the circumstances. Signature and mailing addresses were used to authenticate members and allow the results to be published as roll call votes that each member could verify in a single, published document.

The second big challenge was voting in committees. As political activity slowly went back to its usual rhythm in the committees, voting was gradually extended from specific emergency measures related to Covid-19 to all necessary issues. In response, some parliamentary committees decided to reduce administrative burdens by not publishing vote results as roll call votes in a majority of cases. This caused the first serious controversy, as it eliminated the only way members could verify that their votes were recorded accurately. 

In addition, some committees replaced the temporary procedure of voting by email with a remote-voting application called iVote to minimize the extra vote-counting required of committee secretariats. But the application only works on Apple devices and requires users to open a dedicated account in Apple’s iCloud, which in turn obliges the user to accept terms and conditions, including a privacy policy, designed by an American provider. As a result, data stored oversees would be subject to American legislation and without objective criteria for determining limits on access to and use of the data by  public authorities, as would be the European standard. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, some European Parliament committees objected to the use of iVote because of the multiple conditionalities. A group of MEPs expressed concerns publicly that these conditions would limit their ability to exercise their mandate freely and independently. Members also raised concerns about the quality of the iVote system’s privacy and data protection, a continuing issue for European citizens and their representatives about any technology company, as well as worries about dependence on a single manufacturer. Their complaints were mainly dismissed by the IT service of the Parliament, whose officials argued that the app does not really use iCloud for authentication, and that it does not per se share data with Apple that hasn’t already been shared when creating an Apple ID.  

In normal circumstances, the Bureau of the Parliament is the political body responsible for deciding on administrative and organisational matters, and it has a dedicated sub-group for technical matters, the Working Group on ICT Innovation Strategy. However, under these special circumstances, changes were largely driven from bottom-up.

Limited possibilities to participate in the political debate

Under normal circumstances, members' rights to participate actively in parliamentary committees and delegations are facilitated with remote access to agendas and documents via the eMeeting platform. 

When committee activity restarted, the most pressing issue for the EU was to ensure the supply of essential medical devices and free circulation of goods as member States closed their borders to curb the spread of the virus. The European Parliament tried to unblock the flow of goods by pressing member States to lift border closures and by questioning EU commissioners about how the closures comported with EU law. 

But conducting such committee hearings under the conditions of the pandemic's stay-home orders required video conference tools that could support multiple participants, stream political debates simultaneously to the public, and enable translation to 24 languages. The selected web application, called Interactio, however, proved not to work seamlessly on all devices or with free and open-source browsers.

As time went on, some committees began reducing the number of public debates to only those that were essential, while the number of reports they were handling remained basically unchanged. This meant, for instance, merging steps in the process, such as what ordinarily would be separate discussions on reports or opinions versus on amendments. 

Finally, inter-institutional negotiations between the Parliament, the European Commission and the Council were stopped. Given the sensitivity of such talks, confidentiality usually is preserved by ensuring that only the negotiating team attends the meetings. But this condition can't be guaranteed via remote participation: while remote communication channels might be secure, it's difficult or impossible to control who is physically present in the different locations connected to a virtual meeting. As a result, committees decided for the most part not to organise such negotiations, with only a few exceptions.

The EU generally tries to strengthen the ability of citizens to participate in the union's business by guaranteeing openness and transparency in the work of the Parliament. In practice, that means live streaming political debates, granting public access to documents, and publication of voting results. They can also engage directly with their representatives through e-mails. 

Unfortunately, during the pandemic, many committees decided not to publish voting results, and the number of political debates were decreased in order to reduce the administrative burden. Remote access for citizens via email remained fully functional.

Digital infrastructure still has a long way to go

While the pandemic demonstrated that remote working is not impossible even for European institutions, the current system is far from perfect, and conditions for remote participation must be improved even for a time beyond the Covid-19 crisis. While concerns about administrative burdens are warranted and perfectly legitimate, special attention needs to be paid to preserving the possibilities of members of the European Parliament to exercise their duties and legal obligations, and to guarantee the security and integrity of their work and their votes. 

In September of this year, the Parliament will work on a plan to improve its Rules of Procedures to allow remote participation, including voting, in exceptional circumstances. This reform is the opportunity to clearly codify democratic safeguards applicable to the online world: the rights of elected members to speak and to vote should be ensured without impairment, and the integrity of remote votes should be guaranteed and verifiable.

Finally, increased collaboration between the Bureau of the Parliament’s Working Group on ICT Innovation Strategy and the IT service of the Parliament will help ensure a structured framework. The key will be to identify and implement new solutions that strengthen the security, stability and accessibility of the European Parliament’s IT ecosystem.