The Conference of Speakers of the European Union Parliaments is to take place on 10 May 2021. In preparation for that event, the Secretaries-General of the parliaments of the EU member states and of the European Parliament will be meeting on 29 March 2021 – virtually, of course. Among other matters, they intend to discuss how the digitalisation of their parliaments is progressing, how important cybersecurity is and what role video conferences can play in future interparliamentary cooperation. At the one-day event, hosted by Dr Ute Rettler, Secretary General of the Bundesrat, and Dr Lorenz Müller, Secretary-General of the Bundestag, the subject of climate action and sustainability in parliamentary business will also be on the agenda.
Albino de Azevedo Soares, Secretary-General of the Portuguese Assembleia da República, will brief the meeting on the Parliamentary Dimension of his country’s Presidency of the Council of the EU. Portugal is part of the Troika along with Germany and Slovenia, having taken over the Presidency from Germany for the first half of 2021, after which Slovenia will begin its term on 1 July.
Debate on the annual IPEX report
Another subject of discussion will be IPEX, the Interparliamentary EU Information Exchange. The aim of IPEX is to foster cooperation between the national parliaments of the EU Member States, the European Parliament and the parliaments of candidate countries. IPEX is used by 39 chambers - those of the 27 national parliaments and the European Parliament. Information relating to EU affairs and to parliamentary scrutiny of EU activities is exchanged through a database, which is freely accessible and is therefore a source of information for interested members of the public and researchers. Besides offering the database, IPEX also serves as a network in which the IPEX correspondents from the various EU parliaments communicate with each other. Maija-Leena Paavola, Secretary-General of the Finnish Eduskunta, will address her counterparts to introduce the debate on the IPEX report. After the EU Speakers’ Conference, the Finnish Parliament will hand over the year-long chairmanship of the IPEX Board to the Bundestag and Bundesrat.
Bundestag Secretary-General Müller considers the Bundestag to be “on course” in the digital transition
Besides the Secretary-General of the European Parliament, Klaus Welle, his counterparts from the Bundesrat, Ute Rettler, and the Bundestag, Lorenz Müller, will speak on the digital transition, cybersecurity and video conferences. “Digitalisation is important”, Dr Müller emphasised ahead of the meeting. That had also been demonstrated, and with particular clarity, he said, by the coronavirus pandemic. The Bundestag, he believed, was on course in the digital transition process. The Administration which he leads “has maintained its ability to function with many of its staff working from home”.
Dr Müller expressed his conviction that many parliaments would rely more heavily in future on digital working and consultation processes. “This makes data security all the more important”, he emphasised. Attacks by hackers, he said, posed a real threat to democracies and their institutions. The Bundestag had already been subjected to such attacks too. “We know how hard it is to guarantee the highest possible level of data security, yet that is imperative in view of the great risk potential”, said the Secretary-General.
Parliaments have special security and transparency needs, says Bundesrat Secretary General Ute Rettler
The Secretary General of the Bundesrat took a similar view. Parliaments, she said, have very particular security and transparency needs. “After all, they are the scene of a legislative process that must fulfil the requirements of the Constitution and of the parliamentary rules of procedure”, she stressed. Dr Rettler regretted that the coronavirus pandemic had made it impossible for everyone to meet in person in Berlin but emphasised that “Now we have not only become accustomed to the virtual format of video conferences but also learned a lot more about it during Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU”.
Lozenz Müller: physical meetings irreplaceable in many respects
It remains to be seen whether video conferences will remain the norm for interparliamentary cooperation once the pandemic is over. “They certainly have many advantages”, Dr Müller found, “but in many respects physical meetings cannot be replaced”. There was a different kind of contact, he said, when participants could look each other in the eye as well as engaging in conversation on the fringes of the official meeting.
Sustainability and climate-friendliness in the work of parliaments
The participants in the meeting also want to talk about sustainability and climate-friendliness in the work of parliaments. Claes Mårtensson, Deputy Secretary-General of the Swedish Riksdag, will address that subject at the meeting. Bundesrat Secretary General Ute Rettler knows that issues like sustainability and climate action have not diminished in importance, even if Germany’s Presidency of the Council was almost entirely in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic. This was true both of major items, she said, “if we think of the EU Green Deal” and of supposedly minor items, “if we think of the climate-action and sustainability requirements in our parliamentary work”.
The challenge in the construction of the new annex to the Bundesrat building
The buildings, the infrastructure and even the vehicle pools of parliaments in the EU had to pass the sustainability test, said Ute Rettler. She was looking forward keenly to hearing “what our colleagues report from the other parliaments on these matters”. For the Bundesrat, Dr Rettler said, this was a very tangible challenge that had to be met in the design and construction of its new annex in Leipziger Strasse.
Her Bundestag counterpart, Lorenz Müller, likewise has his sights trained on climate action and sustainable economic management, which he described as hugely important to the future of our planet. “The European institutions – first and foremost the European Parliament, but also the parliaments of the member states – must lead by example here”, he urged. (hau/24 March 2021)