'Can you hear me?' Video conferencing complicates EU coordination

Published March 24, 2020
European Council President Charles Michel attends a conference call with European leaders on Coronavirus, COVID-19, at the European Council, Brussels, Belgium on March 10, 2020. — Reuters
European Council President Charles Michel attends a conference call with European leaders on Coronavirus, COVID-19, at the European Council, Brussels, Belgium on March 10, 2020. — Reuters

The European Union’s decision-making process is being sorely tested by video conferencing during the coronavirus pandemic, EU officials say, with one calling it a “catastrophe”.

A virtual meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday was punctuated by technical problems, speakers who were unsure if they could be heard and a lack of translators.

“These video conferences don’t work very well, there are tech problems and the ‘Hello, can you hear me?’ interruptions,” said a senior diplomat present at Monday’s video link. “So people read out their prepared notes mostly. There is little scope for actual negotiations.”

Strong coordination among the EU’s 27 member states is vital. But lockdowns and travel bans have made it harder than usual for the EU, and many organisations are unable to bring representatives together in person for meetings.

“In the video conferences, it’s a catastrophe, the images are lost, the voices are lost,” the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, who has participated in virtual talks with Asian and European ministers, told reporters on Friday.

He said he preferred telephone calls.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas defended video conferences, saying they could be arranged quickly. Decisions taken could be formalised in writing, he said.

“I think it will be necessary to increase the frequency of meetings [by video conference],” he told reporters by video.

But the senior EU diplomat said the experience was sobering.

“It’s a testing time for Europe. There are no summits, no ministerial meetings, less visibility,” the diplomat said.

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