EU machine doing “business as usual” despite the coronavirus

By Brandon Mitchener

The global coronavirus pandemic has hurt most businesses and helped a few—think videoconferencing services—but there is one sector which is almost going about “business as usual”: the European Union institutions.

Sure, the European Union has asked tens of thousands of staff and elected members of the European Parliament to work from home, and the departments most immediately concerned with coronavirus crisis management—health, finance and transportation—have delayed a few less urgent initiatives. But they are the exception.

As a rule, the EU regulatory and political machine grinds on, launching consultations, holding hearings and advancing talks on everything from Brexit to European chemicals policy.

“Just because the offices are closed doesn’t mean that behind the scenes people aren’t working,” Timothy Hayes, political officer for the European Commission’s office in Dublin, told the British Irish Chamber of Commerce in a videoconference earlier this week.

Indeed, in Brussels, the European Commission continues to launch new public consultations as if it were living on borrowed time. Just this week, it published a roadmap on the revision of EU rules related to the ozone layer and sought public comment on draft acts relating to EU school fruit, vegetables and milk scheme, business statistics, industrial emissions, fish farms, customs checks, sustainable aviation fuels.

It also launched formal consultations on the Galileo satellite system, sustainable finance, animal welfare, preferential trade tariffs for developing countries, closing the gender pay gap, the European Climate Pact, food irradiation, and EU strategies on data and artificial intelligence.

Most of those consultation periods run through the months of April and May, when many in Brussels may still be working from home.

The European Parliament recently has mostly focused on urgent votes on urgent procedures linked to the COVID-19 outbreak, but it has also found time to consider European chemicals regulation and a proposal for a sweeping Digital Services Act. The Commission says its public consultation on the Act, one of the top priorities on its current work programme, is “ready to go” at a moment’s notice.

Measures for a which a small delay has been announced include measures related to financial services (such as the Consumer Credit Directive and anti-money laundering legislation), the EU’s ambitious new Farm to Fork strategy, which covers agricultural and food production, and a  biodiversity strategy.

The good news for those seeking to influence EU initiatives is that more time means more opportunities to influence, whether that’s via written submissions, phone calls, virtual conferences or other means. Quick decisions tend to favour incumbents because upstarts and civil society groups have less time to mobilise, whereas delays give officials working on delayed files more time to consider arguments and make better decisions.

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