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EU Public Affairs in times of COVID-19: three lessons from the Dr2 Academy

The COVID-19 pandemic that reached the European continent in the beginning of March this year disrupted the daily life of businesses in countless ways. Apart from serious public health implications, the pandemic has also restricted mobility and forced many Europeans to work from home. As policymakers have to adhere to COVID-19 related restrictions as much as others do, the dynamics of policymaking and advocacy have changed significantly. This requires organizations to adapt the way in which they influence policymaking by engaging in EU Public Affairs. Dr2 Consultants’ Dr2 Academy presents three lessons how COVID-19 changed EU Public Affairs.

1. Digital Public Affairs in times of lockdown

Confinement measures, border closures and epidemiological color coding throughout Europe has severely hampered cross-border mobility, making physical meetings (in Brussels) almost impossible. The Croatian Presidency of the Council of the EU was required to facilitate Council meetings virtually and the European Parliament (EP) changed to remote voting during its plenary sessions. Following a controversial decision by EP President Sassoli earlier this month, Plenary sessions are taking place in Brussels (and not Strasbourg) at least until the end of 2020.

While industry representatives, lobbyists and other stakeholders used to meet Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in one of the several parliamentary coffee corners, speak to Commission staff around the Berlaymont building or attend various events to broaden their network and get insight information, the nature of these meetings has changed significantly. Nowadays, setting up Zoom or Skype calls with policymakers to discuss the latest information on ongoing files has become an essential instrument for effective EU Public Affairs in times of COVID-19.

Furthermore, events, conferences and receptions moved online too in the form of webinars. Although not a fully-fledged alternative to the spontaneity of physical events, online conferences usually designate a timeslot for networking. Digital meetings pose their own challenges. In order to successfully convey a policy message, the use of PowerPoint presentations and other digital tools have become increasingly important. As the current situation is likely to be maintained, organizations will have to invest time and resources in the effective use of the appropriate digital tools.

2. Changing dynamics in the EU institutions

The reliance on digital meetings and COVID-19 emergency procedures shifted policy priorities, which resulted in delays of several legislative initiatives. In the Council of the EU, where multiple meetings normally take place simultaneously, the Croatian Presidency could (for technical and safety related reasons) only host one meeting at a time. This led to a capacity reduction of 25% at the height of both the pandemic as well as the political cycle. Moreover, Trilogue meetings between the Council of the EU and the European Parliament were preferably not held digitally, leading to additional delays. The European Parliament, which organized extraordinary plenary sessions to vote on COVID-19 related contingency measures, also witnessed postponement of several committee meetings. Flagship events, such as the Digital Transport Days and EU Green Week have all been moved to online environments.

Since policymakers, industry representatives and other stakeholders all deal with the same changing issues and circumstances, organizations are recommended to adapt to changing policy agendas and deadlines, as well as to align KPI’s accordingly. Creativity in maintaining regular contact with (institutional) stakeholders by exploiting the latest digital tools is imperative for effective Public Affairs in times of COVID-19.

3. Adapting to the changing policy agenda

During the initial months of the COVID-19 outbreak, the European Commission focused on managing the short-term effects of the crisis. Crisis management combined with the new way of digital working also caused the Commission to revise its Work Program for 2020. The publication of several initiatives has been pushed back and some have been grouped together. Legislative files with a lower priority have been moved up in their timelines, while more urgent ones got a priority position. Public consultations have in some cases also been extended, enabling more time for input from stakeholders. In general, the measures related to the pandemic have led to a considerable shake-up and accompanying unpredictability of the policy agenda for 2020 and beyond.

To remain on top of the developments in Brussels, it will be crucial for businesses to invest in monitoring the most recent developments and policy agenda changes (Dr2 Consultants offers such monitoring services). This will enable organizations to respond quickly to policy developments and capitalize on the opportunities to represent their interests at EU level.

Dr2 Academy 

Dr2 Consultants’ Dr2 Academy offers services such as EU and Belgium Affairs Trainings, individual coaching to Public Affairs professionals and organizational advice on how to embed Public Affairs within your organization. Dr2 Consultants can be contacted for any questions on how to be effective in times of COVID-19.

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