One year on: How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected the work of the MEPs?

In this interview, Finnish MEPs Heidi Hautala and Eero Heinäluoma reflect on the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on their work.

Over a year has passed since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic and many of us became participants of a massive remote work experiment. Across the EU, companies and organisations alike closed their doors and employees moved to home offices. The Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) were no exception. How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected the work of the MEPs? Two Finnish MEPs, Heidi Hautala and Eero Heinäluoma, tell us about their experiences in this interview.

Quick response facilitated by digital technologies 

Following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the European Parliament was quick to respond to the challenges the situation posed to its functioning. One of the Parliament’s immediate initiatives was to create a mechanism for remote debate and voting. Reflecting on the matter, Heinäluoma points out that the European Parliament was incredibly fast to transition to the remote work conditions, while noting that many other parliaments faced difficulties in adapting to the new circumstances.
One year into the pandemic, Hautala and Heinäluoma are accustomed to using the various digital tools and videoconferencing platforms as a part of their daily work. “Apart from some occasional Wi-Fi hiccups, relying heavily on the digital technologies has not brought about notable issues”, says Hautala. Heinäluoma has similarly found it easy to adopt the new technologies, although he would welcome further harmonisation of the IT tools in place, as currently the software in use differ from one EU institution and Parliament committee to another.

Keeping busy

Hautala and Heinäluoma both confirm that the pandemic has not put an end to their busy timetables. In fact, since online meetings and webinars are frequently easier to arrange and participate in than physical ones, the MEPs’ calendars become easily packed with virtual meetings, conferences and events. With such online activities added on top of the MEPs’ regular tasks in the committees and political groups, constituency and plenary work, and the participation in negotiations, hearings, debates and votes –  the pandemic era has been a hectic time for the MEPs.

Lack of face-to-face interaction poses challenges

One of the key downsides of remote work for both Hautala and Heinäluoma is the lack of face-to-face communication with their colleagues and the associated challenges. As the Parliament currently allows only one assistant per MEP physically in the building, the MEPs have less direct communication with their teams. Hautala has observed that it is sometimes challenging to manage the workflow and coordinate with the team in remote conditions. When working remotely, the threshold for the exchange of information may be higher, resulting in an accumulation of action items and unresolved issues. Similarly, Heinäluoma refers to occasional bottlenecks that occur when work accumulates due to the reduced regular interaction with the team.
“I miss collaborating and talking with my team in person”, Hautala states. When the whole team is rarely together at the same place, there are fewer opportunities for brainstorming, free-flowing conversation and exchange of ideas, she explains. Along the same lines, Heinäluoma notes that “online meetings do not provide an ideal setting for creative interchange and cannot compete with face-to-face dialogue.”
[bctt tweet=”“Online meetings do not provide an ideal setting for creative interchange and cannot compete with face-to-face dialogue””]
Heinäluoma adds that, since the spontaneous conversations with colleagues in the Parliament’s corridors are missing, a part of the usual exchange of information has been eliminated. In addition, he has noticed that the remote work conditions have elevated the role of pre-established contacts. “As it is more difficult to create new connections remotely than it is in person, people are relying increasingly on pre-existing connections in their work”, he explains.
Remote work has also made the MEPs rethink their interaction with the stakeholders. Seeing people’s genuine immediate reactions is a crucial part of authentic face-to-face communication, Heinäluoma describes. “In remote conditions, communication risks becoming unilateral”, he says. Despite the existing limitations of remote stakeholder engagement, Hautala has been glad to see that communication with many stakeholders, including companies and civil society organisations, has remained rather strong through online tools.
On the other hand, while the MEPs have fewer opportunities to meet their colleagues and stakeholders in person since the outbreak of the pandemic, the remote working conditions have provided more occasions to spend time with family. Heinäluoma says that he has been particularly pleased to be able to spend more time with his parents.

Efficiency gains through remote meetings

On the other side of the coin, both MEPs identify the increased efficiency as a positive aspect of remote work. Hautala remarks that it is sometimes easier to get hold of busy people through digital platforms, instead of trying to catch them for physical meetings. At the same time, online meetings are frequently shorter than physical ones, leaving more time for other work, thereby resulting in efficiency gains.
However, as Heinäluoma points out, one challenge of reduced meeting times in the committees in particular is ensuring that all voices are heard. “As the meeting slots have been shortened, not everyone gets the speaking time they would want and the role of a selected few risks becoming inflated”, he describes.
As an advantage of remote meetings, Heinäluoma notes that when one does not have to spend time on travelling from one meeting place to another, there is often more time to attend more meetings, irrespective of their location. Hautala provides a case in point, as she is about to participate in a conference taking place in New York, without travelling across the Atlantic.

Less travelling

During the pandemic, the MEPs have witnessed a considerable reduction in business travel. “Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the MEPs have not made any business trips to the Parliament’s delegations”, Hautala says. She also notes that the situation has drawn attention to the question of the Parliament’s two seats, located in Brussels and Strasbourg, and animated the debate on whether the monthly move between the two cities should be continued in the future. Since March 2020, all of the Parliament’s monthly plenary sessions have been held in Brussels instead of Strasbourg. Changing the current seat system would require modifying the EU’s treaties and therefore call for unanimity among all Member States’ governments and ratification by each of their national parliaments.
Hautala remarks that reducing unnecessary travel is a welcome development in the Parliament. Indeed, a recent report by the Parliament’s Environmental Management Unit (EMAS) found that the transport of persons accounts for two thirds of the Parliament’s overall carbon footprint. Accordingly, if the Parliament wants to be in line with the EU’s ambitious climate targets, it would be useful to review the need for missions and to limit business trips to the indispensable ones also in the post-pandemic era, Hautala explains.
[bctt tweet=”Reducing unnecessary travel is a welcome development in the Parliament.”]

Mandatory disposable masks

Hautala brings up a recent development in the Parliament’s fight against the virus. In March 2021, the use of disposable medical masks became mandatory in all of the Parliament’s premises. Following this decision, an environmental NGO calculated that the use of disposable medical masks or disposable FFP2 masks by the MEPs and staff would lead to 12,000 kilograms of non-recyclable waste every year. The NGO urged the Parliament’s President and Secretary General to find a more sustainable option, in line with the Union’s green policies.
As Hautala remarks, the question over the compulsory disposable masks accentuates the interconnected nature of two of today’s pressing global challenges – the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. There is a scientific consensus that climate change drives biodiversity loss, which alters how humans relate to other species on Earth, which in turn has implications to our health and our risk for infections. The debate also highlights that, while the pandemic is frequently overshadowing other policy priorities, it can equally encourage us to look at those priorities from a new perspective.

Looking ahead

What will the MEPs’ work look like in the post-pandemic future? Looking ahead, both Hautala and Heinäluoma would welcome the continuation of hybrid meetings, enabling both on-site and remote participation. Having the opportunity to choose whether to attend meetings physically or online depending on the situation would save time, money and the environment.
Having said that, Hautala and Heinäluoma underline that there are many elements of in-person communication that online meetings simply cannot replace. Accordingly, both are looking forward to resuming face-to-face interaction once the situation allows it. To what extent hybrid meetings and remote work will stay around in the post-pandemic Parliament, remains to be seen.
This text expresses the personal opinion of the author and not that of the Court of Auditors.
TEXT: Rosa Kotoaro
PHOTO: Council of the EU
The author is a London School of Economics (LSE) graduate with an MSc in International Political Economy. She is specialised in EU economic affairs and is currently working at the European Court of Auditors (ECA) in Luxembourg.