How pandemic parliaments meet: remote, in-person, or a mix?

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The restrictions imposed by the coronavirus they have modified parliamentary activity around the world.

The recommendation of social distance caused by the threat of the coronavirus complicates the operation of businesses and activities that involve the gathering of many people in closed rooms. In this sense, an activity directly affected is that of the legislative powers and parliaments, who have resorted to various solutions around the world.

Depending on the context, different countries and blocs have opted for different solutions. Most opted for some kind of compromise, using the remote mode for meetings and debates, while in some cases voting has taken the face-to-face form. Others have resorted to the limited presence of legislators for specific issues. Here is a review of how various countries have resolved the issue.

The pandemic stopped but did not stop at all the activity of the European Parliament and the national parliaments of the bloc states. The greatest restrictions were experienced at the end of March and beginning of April, when the majority restricted their activity to the essentials, but they never closed their doors completely.

The European Parliament meets two weeks a month in Brussels and one week a month in the French city of Strasbourg. Deputies must spend the fourth week of each month in their constituencies.

Thousands of people travel every month for four days from Brussels to Strasbourg, in a political pilgrimage that is maintained, against the will of the majority of MEPs, because European treaties ensure that the European Parliament is shared between the French city and the capital Belgian.

Since March sessions were canceled in Strasbourg and activity in Brussels was increased accordingly, but meetings were limited. The face-to-face debates are limited to presence and barely a third of the capacity is completed. The rest of the MEPs follow the sessions from home and a telematic voting system was prepared for them.

The cancellation of the week of sessions in Strasbourg generated a fight between the European institutions and the French government, suspicious that they will try to use the restrictions of the pandemic to permanently eliminate the headquarters of Strasbourg, as a majority of MEPs would like.

The president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, assured this week that the cancellation of those sessions is due solely to health reasons because traveling to Strasbourg would cause several thousand people to quarantine when they return to Brussels four days later.

Since May it was allowed again journalists’ access to the facilities of the European Parliament in Brussels but there are still many problems to organize activities with external guests and the majority of the staff of the European Parliament (administration staff or parliamentary assistants) continue to work from home.

The European national parliaments practically all follow the same policy: they meet with the usual regularity but with reduced capacity. Political parties send a percentage of their deputies and care is taken that the representation of each group is proportional to its real size.

The percentage of attendance varies. In the United Kingdom, they continue to meet with very limited participation, while in most countries on the continent, parties can send half of their deputies to parliamentary sessions.

In some cases, the control of that measure is very lax, as has happened several times in Spain or France, where there have been days in which attendance was close to 70% of the benches.

Session with only half of the deputies present lets leave empty half of the seats and thus respect a minimum safety distance.

However, since the use of chinstraps became general (in Spain, deputies and members of the government stop to speak but do not remove the chinstrap), attendance is greater and many times that seat is not left empty among deputies.

The United States Congress, made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives, suffered historical modifications due to the pandemic.

The House of Representatives suspended its face-to-face activities in April due to medical recommendations. After a long process of debate, allowed videoconference sessions to be held, while the voting went to a modality of voting through a delegate, where a legislator could vote for up to ten of his colleagues who had not been able to travel to Washington DC.

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