EU/Presidency: Lockdowns boost need for online presidency, force Portugal to prioritise dossiers

The confinement decreed by Portugal and the restrictions in EU member states to limit the spread of Covid-19 reinforce the scenario of a virtual presidency and will force Portugal to prioritise dossiers, officials told Lusa on Thursday. 

“I think it is definitely more difficult, if not virtually impossible, to achieve the same level of productivity as ‘normal’ presidencies during a ‘crown’ presidency,” said Johannes Greubel, analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC), in an interview with Lusa.

With the lack of “bilateral or small group meetings” on the fringes of the summits, the presidencies are, according to the researcher, significantly limited because “it is at these moments that the crucial parts of the negotiations take place”.

“Experience shows that all major decisions in the Council were basically taken when leaders locked themselves in a room and only left when they reached an agreement. This increases the pressure to reach compromises and this pressure simply does not exist in virtual format,” he said.

In addition to the absence of physical meetings, it is impossible to take formal decisions during virtual meetings, as the source for the General Secretariat of the EU Council – which provides logistical and technical support to the presidencies – told Lusa.

“As videoconferences are not formal Council meetings but informal meetings between ministers, no formal decision can be taken. Formal decisions on any matter may, however, be taken in any Council configuration meeting in person, provided a quorum is reached”. 

In this context, Cristina Vanberghen, professor at the Institute of European Studies of the Free University of Brussels (ULB), points out to the Lusa that, although they have “great potential”, virtual presidencies create “innumerable challenges”, not only because of the absence of physical meetings, but also because they limit countries’ ability to reach the “local level”.

“Presidencies are also an occasion to go out into the streets and talk to the public about Europe. With the confinement in Portugal, I expect limitations on Portugal’s ability to deliver effectively and get Europe to the local level”, Vanberghen stresses.

She highlights the need for a “bold leadership” of Portugal, which has “a great capacity for listening and efficient communication”.

“It is important to be quick, clear and, above all, to identify trends and motivate counterparts to build bridges between political aspirations and practical realities”.

Greubel also points out that a presidency that adopts a virtual format has to “choose its ‘battles'” and clearly define where “it wants to invest its time, because it cannot organise face to face meetings”.

Thus, according to Cristina Vanberghen, issues which generate tensions between member states – such as the negotiation of the Migration and Asylum Pact, which Portugal has identified as a priority, or the “much needed reform of the EU which will be discussed by the Conference on the Future of Europe” – could become “a major challenge” for Portugal.

“These are issues which need tremendous preparation and high-quality virtual meetings in order to build a high level of diplomatic confidence between member states”, Vanberghen said.

The ULB professor rejects, however, the idea that Portugal should “lower its ambitions”, pointing out that the virtual format gives above all a “great responsibility to Portugal”.

“In these difficult times, the Portuguese presidency will have a great responsibility to show Europeans that Europe can cope with the current challenges, that both the EU and member states can work together to fight the pandemic, and that there is collective determination and a driving force behind the EU”, she points out.

Johannes Gleuber said that while the “way in which the EU’s decision-making machinery is currently composed” allows the EU to be “as effective as possible” given the circumstances, the physical component is still indispensable. 

“I think that when it comes to taking decisions and reaching political compromises, we will always need physical meetings, so coordination at the virtual level must be maintained, but when it comes to taking concrete and sensitive decisions, only physical meetings can help,” he stresses.