The current COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has forced many companies, schools, restaurants and other establishments to adopt new ways of working, and Luxembourg’s many European institutions are no exception.
Having been in touch with representatives of the following Luxembourg-based institutions of the European Union (EU), Chronicle.lu learned how the Representation of the European Commission (EC) in Luxembourg, the European Parliament (EP), the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) have been coping with this unprecedented situation.
Regarding remote working and the number of staff whose physical presence is still required, the EU institutions in Luxembourg have implemented various policies in line with the government’s recommendations. Indeed, earlier this month, the Luxembourg government requested that companies use teleworking as much as possible and reduce their activities to tasks that are essential for the operation of the business.
For her part, Yuriko Backes, Head of the Representation of the European Commission in Luxembourg, assured that “the European institutions have been taking necessary measures to protect their staff and to comply with the instructions issued by the respective national authorities”.
EC: In the case of the European Commission, Yuriko Backes confirmed that “the Commission has implemented many measures to maintain the Institution’s operations under the present circumstances”. Indeed, 97% of Commission staff are teleworking at present and “the institution is mobilising all tools to work 24/7 responding to the crisis”. Only “critical staff” have been authorised to work in the office since Monday 16 March 2020. Even then, these staff members may be able to telework if their physical presence is not required. Ms Backes added that “the reduction in the number of critical staff physically present in the office is a policy the Commission continues in order to stop the virus spreading.
According to Yuriko Backes, the Representation of the Commission in Luxembourg had also observed the instructions from the headquarters in Brussels and put a business continuity plan in place. She added: “We are also concerned about the health and safety of visitors to the European information Centre at the House of the EU in Luxembourg’s city centre: it was closed to visitors, but continues to be at the disposal of interested citizens via phone and mail”.
EP: Similarly, a spokesperson of the European Parliament confirmed that the institution recently introduced new measures favouring additional teleworking. These measures, which complement the existing precautionary measures, are in line with internal and national health authorities' recommendations and form part of the duty of care of the EP. Indeed, the institution implemented such precautionary measures for staff on 24 February 2020. First measures requested staff and invited Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) coming from affected regions or having any cold or flu symptoms to telework for two weeks. As of 8 March 2020, the EP invited all vulnerable staff to telework and since 16 March 2020, all staff whose physical presence in Parliament is not absolutely necessary have been teleworking 100% of the working time. The spokesperson assured that support to core activities of the Parliament and its Members is being provided.
In Luxembourg specifically, with the neighbouring Grand Est (France) being identified as a core affected region, the EP invited all resident staff to telework. For instance, 100% of the translators, who are already used to this exercise, are teleworking at present.
EIB: At the European Investment Bank, all staff are currently teleworking, apart from about twelve staff members plus external providers who carry out critical functions on site. The decision was taken on 12 March with most staff teleworking as of 13 March 2020; by Monday 16 March 2020, all staff were teleworking, bar critical staff. This includes a four-person IT hardware support team which carries out weekly checks of technical issues. There is also an online IT helpdesk for staff working remotely. Note that the EIB employs some 3,600 people in Luxembourg, the vast majority of whom are now teleworking. The EIB spokesperson added that all offices and buildings but one have been closed, although security is maintained.
CJEU: A representative of the CJEU stated that the Luxembourg-based institution has also adopted exceptional measures with the aim of limiting the risk of contagion and protecting human health. Staff are being asked not to go to the Court buildings except in exceptional circumstances and only if absolutely necessary. Together with their respective Heads of Departments, staff are asked to coordinate their remote working arrangements. The spokesperson assured that all necessary information would continue to be sent to staff through the following channels: SMS, emails and the Curia site. Although there is no fixed percentage, the fact that members of staff are only allowed at the Court in exceptional circumstances means that physical presence is kept at the strictest minimum. For instance, on 24 March 2020, only 3 % of CJEU staff accessed the building (and even then, this was not for a full working day). As the situation unfolds, different sections of the Court are adapting their working habits in order to maximise the use of the available tools and guarantee a full working efficiency.
Workload and disruption
Chronicle.lu went on to ask whether the various EU institutions had been able to function without disruption or they had to postpone or cancel some work or projects due to a change in working habits. The institutions also shared whether or not they had experienced an increase in workload.
EC: Speaking on behalf of the European Commission, Yuriko Backes confirmed that “many events and trips have been cancelled or postponed; if possible, meetings are replaced by videoconference”. The Head of Representation in Luxembourg added that this has also affected public conferences and meetings scheduled to take place in Luxembourg, such as larger scale events with Commissioners. Indeed, Europe Day, which is celebrated on 9 May and became an official public holiday in Luxembourg last year, will no longer go ahead as planned this year. Ms Backes explained that there had been plans to celebrate “in a very special way as this year is also the 70th anniversary of the Schuman declaration”. She added that the Commission had also planned, together with the other institutions, to launch the Conference on the Future of Europe that same day. “We have to see in what shape and form, perhaps digitally, this process of engagement with EU citizens can be launched and carried out”, Ms Backes stated.
EP: Regarding EP activities, the representative confirmed that the President of the European Parliament had adopted specific measures for the EP as of 2 March and again on 10 March 2020. All non-core activities have also been postponed as part of the precautionary measures to limit the risk of contamination. Essential activities linked to legislative, budgetary and scrutiny powers are maintained but reduced. As such, committees, groups, governing bodies and the plenary can still meet, debate and take decisions.
The EP spokesperson maintained that there is a need to protect the health of Members, staff and other persons working at or visiting the EP, while maintaining the Parliament’s capacity to exercise its core functions as attributed to the institution by the Treaty on the European Union as critical infrastructure of democracy in the EU. IT tools are used to facilitate the work of the institution as much as possible and to replace physical meetings where relevant or for MEPs unable to be present. The calendar of the parliamentary activities was reviewed by the Conference of Presidents to adapt to the situation.
EIB: Similarly, the EIB has experienced no interruption of services or operations. Events and committee meetings requiring physical attendance have been postponed or organised in a different format. A recent example is the stakeholders conferences on the EIB Climate Bank Roadmap, which were initially supposed to take place in Brussels from 23 to 26 March 2020, but instead took the form of an interactive video conference. Indeed, the organisers had to react quickly to either cancel the meetings or find another way to hold them. This presented a huge challenge as they were not sure if the objectives of the meetings would be achieved. And yet, these virtual meetings counted more than 1,000 participants (with some participants taking part in more than one conference) from over 30 countries overall. These meetings normally attract roughly 140-150 participants; this time, 320 participants took part in the first conference, 300 in the second, 200 in the third and another 200 in the fourth conference. Consequently, these online meetings – a first for the EIB – can be considered a success.
Regarding disruption, the EIB spokesperson explained that every function had to adapt. Specifically, new recruits will start their jobs online rather than in person and efforts are being made to quickly set up online training for newcomers. As for a potential workload increase, the IT team had to put in additional work to prepare the institution and staff for teleworking. In addition, all EIB activity has been heavily loaded to support R&D and SMEs and to mobilise resources for the EU COVID-19 response. Nevertheless, the EIB had been already been preparing for the crisis for several weeks under its business continuity crisis teams. Preparation and monitoring is key, according to the EIB representative.
CJEU: According to its spokesperson, the Court aims to continue to function as usual while ensuring that the safety measures are respected. Most core judicial functions of the Court can still be assured remotely with the exception of those that require the physical presence of the parties. Hence, all hearings that were to be held from 16 March to 3 April 2020 have been postponed. Rulings and opinions continue to be delivered but have been regrouped in one session per week. Thanks to its current technological set up, the Court has also been providing strong support to staff who can perform their tasks remotely – whether it is judicial or linguistic activity. For the rest, cancellations concern in-house training courses, missions abroad and visitors' groups that would not have been in line with the safety advisory. The Court has reportedly experienced no increase in workload.
IT systems and connectivity
How are the institutions ensuring that their staff remain connected and can telework in the context of increased internet usage?
EP: For their part, EP staff have been receiving help to ensure they all have access to internet and can install the accesses required to telework.
EIB: Having already had a teleworking policy in place prior to the crisis, the EIB has seen an increase in remote connections from around 500-600 to 4,250 (as of last week). To prepare for this increased use of teleworking, the EIB had increased internet bandwidth capacity in advance. Due to early preparations, the transition has run smoothly to date. To ensure continued security outside the office, the institution ensured a VPN professionally secured connection to allow staff to connect to the shared network. Indeed, the EIB had been preparing for the full transition to teleworking a few weeks in advance, with a trial week testing how the different departments would cope with working 100% remotely.
CJEU: For its part, the Court has invested in more technological support and bandwidth in order to ensure that staff can take up the possibility of remote working without interruptions.
All in all, the European institutions in Luxembourg have taken various measures to ensure both their continued functioning and the protection of their staff during the current pandemic.