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Parliamentary Secretaries-General discuss the digital transition, sustainability and climate action

Green roofs, paper recycling and beehives: the efforts being made in Europe’s national parliaments to make their work more sustainable and climate-friendly are indeed manifold. That was one of the points to emerge from the virtual meeting of the Secretaries-General of the parliaments of the EU member states and of the European Parliament, held on 29 March 2021. A second point was that the coronavirus pandemic had prompted – or rather compelled – the parliaments to move forward on the digital transition, because the Covid restrictions did not permit regular parliamentary business. It was a necessary step, and the participants felt that it had been successful. The Secretaries-General expressed the view that all of the parliaments had managed to remain operational at all times over the past 14 months. One of the purposes of the meeting, chaired by Dr Ute Rettler, Secretary General of the Bundesrat, and her Bundestag counterpart, Dr Lorenz Müller, was to prepare the ground for the Conference of Speakers of the European Union Parliaments in May. The participants were not entirely in agreement about the post-pandemic format of their meetings in terms of the balance between physical gatherings and video conferences.

Lorenz Müller: Big boost for the digital transition

The restriction of personal contacts had given the digital transition a big boost in every sphere “and, of course, in parliaments too”, said the Secretary-General of the Bundestag. Some parliaments, he said, had been well placed from the outset. “Most, however, were surprised by the extent of the pandemic and its consequences”, he continued, “and had to create facilities for virtual committee meetings and plenary sittings or even for virtual voting.”

EP Secretary-General Klaus Welle: Working from home is a post-Covid option too

Klaus Welle, Secretary-General of the European Parliament, explained some measures that had been taken in Brussels and Strasbourg. The European Parliament, he said, had set three priorities, namely to protect staff and Members, to keep Parliament operational and to show “practical solidarity”. All staff with previous medical conditions and 90% of the other staff were sent to work from home, said Mr Welle. Ten thousand 2-in-1 PCs were procured, which merely brought forward the planned replacement of the existing desktop computers. There has also been a test centre in the European Parliament for quite some time, said Mr Welle, and since last week the Parliament has had its own vaccination centre. So that Parliament could remain operational, a decision had been taken at a very early date to rely on the interpreting system of a European start-up company “and not on the American market leader” – not least in view of the European data protection guidelines. Some 200,000 users had been linked so far through the platform. “All committee and group meetings have been conducted in that way”, said the EP Secretary-General, adding that the transactions had been interpreted into as many as 13 languages.

Mr Welle expressed his conviction that working from home for one to three days a week would still be an option after the Covid crisis. He regarded the hybrid participation of Members in meetings as highly beneficial. It was easier, moreover, to invite experts from any part of the world to hook up by video link for a short consultation than to persuade them to take a seven-hour transatlantic flight.

Experiences from national parliaments

Assessments of the situation in the national parliaments were varied. Albino de Azevedo Soares, Secretary-General of the Portuguese Assembleia da República, said that very few face-to-face committee meetings had taken place since April 2020. Hearings had been conducted by video as a matter of principle.

The Polish Parliament had adapted its rules of procedure to the prevailing circumstances in March 2020, said Agnieszka Kaczmarska, Secretary-General of the Sejm. This had made it possible to conduct virtual committee meetings and plenary sittings. An interesting side-effect, she added, was that the average attendance at virtual sittings was 75%, compared with 25% at sittings in the customary formats.

Cost savings for international conferences

The vast majority of committee meetings in the Dutch Senate had been conducted digitally, said Remco Nehmelman, Secretary General of the Senate of the States General. Plenary sittings, on the other hand, had taken place in the building, but in a larger chamber.

The Maltese House of Representatives was in a very new building with a robust IT structure, said Raymond Scicluna, Clerk of the House. For this reason it had been possible to make the necessary modifications without too much difficulty. Mr Scicluna also pointed out that a great deal of expense could be spared when international conferences in particular were conducted in video format.

Video conferences unsuitable for establishing personal contacts

However, Eric Tavernier, Secretary-General of the French Senate, expressed the view that meetings in person were the norm and that video conferences should be regarded only as a supplementary instrument for purposes such as preliminary discussions. “Political talks should continue to be conducted face to face”, he said, adding that video conferences, after all, were not a good medium for establishing personal contacts.

Luigi Gianniti, representing the Italian Senate, said he was proud that his Chamber had managed to conduct both plenary sittings and committee meetings physically in spite of all the restrictions. The House had only resorted to video conferences for hearings of experts, he said.

Bundesrat Secretary General: The need to find pragmatic solutions

Dr Ute Rettler, Secretary General of the Bundesrat, drew attention to the potential use of open video conference platforms as a target for cyberattacks. For this reason, the Bundesrat had taken the pragmatic decision that Members working externally with conferencing systems such as Webex or Zoom should use special laptops which were not linked to the internal network of the Bundesrat. Without video conferences, however, interparliamentary cooperation in particular would have been brought to a standstill during the pandemic. Video conferences were therefore beneficial in principle, she stressed. The decisive thing was not so much an agreement to use a particular platform but rather the interoperability of systems. In this respect t
oo, Dr Rettler argued for pragmatic solutions.Sustainability and climate-friendliness in the work of parliamentsDr Rettler opened the discussion on sustainability and climate-friendliness in the work of parliaments by observing that these issues had been sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, they had to stay on the agenda, because “Climate change, sadly, has not gone into lockdown”. For this reason, she said, the European Union had prescribed an ambitious Green Deal for itself, which made expectations of parliaments, not only in their legislative function but also in their everyday work.

Claes Mårtensson, Deputy Secretary-General of the Swedish Riksdag, began his contribution by highlighting the fact that the Riksdag Administration had been granted environmental certification back in 2009. The environmental goals of the Administration, he said, were to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and energy consumption, to reduce volumes of waste and to practise sustainable procurement. The Riksdag had had a green roof installed, had greatly reduced its use of printer paper   and had introduced a “four-hour rule” for official travel. This meant that travelling by air was not permitted unless the time saving achieved by flying exceeded four hours.

Excellent honey from the Polish Sejm

The Sejm rises to the challenge by producing its own honey, as well as through paperless working, waste separation and paper recycling, as Secretary-General Agnieszka Kaczmarska reported. “We are proud to have honey bees at the Sejm”, she said, adding that the Parliament was committed to the protection of bees. The honey obtained from them, moreover, was of excellent quality.

Since 2009, environmental work in the Danish Parliament had been greatly expanded, said its Secretary General, Marie Hansen. The Folketing sought to reduce its environmental footprint and to cut its waste output. In addition, at the present time energy screening of all parliamentary buildings was being carried out. Another focal point was lighting, said Ms Hansen, with LED bulbs and lighting control systems playing a major part.

“Learning from each other and taking away ideas for our own parliamentary administrations”

Examples of climate-sensitive and sustainable action were also cited by Harald Dossi, Secretary General of the Austrian Parliament, and Manuel Cavero, General Secretary of the Spanish Senate. Rounding up, Bundesrat Secretary General Ute Rettler said that these matters clearly went beyond what could be dealt with at a single meeting. “In future, we should regularly address the topic of sustainability and climate-friendliness in the work of our parliaments and share news of innovations and our current experiences”, she suggested to her counterparts. In this way, she said, they could learn together and take away ideas for their own parliamentary administrations. (hau/30 March 2021).

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