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6th Jun 2020

Interview

EU video-diplomacy not as effective, minister says

  • EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell (c) in Monday's virtual meeting (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Conducting EU foreign policy by videoconference during the pandemic is "doable", but legal and security constraints vexed the process, Lithuania's foreign minister, Linas Linkevicius, has said.

Linkevicius spoke to EUobserver by phone on Monday (23 March) after taking part in his first-ever EU Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) via a computer screen from his office in Vilnius.

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  • Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevicius (r) with Borrell at a previous - normal - meeting (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

He almost had to do it from his private residence due to self-isolation, which he had imposed as a precaution after having recently travelled to the Western Balkans and Middle East.

But he went in to his ministry after his coronavirus test turned out negative on Sunday.

The 27 EU ministers, all on their screens at home, exchanged remarks on Syria, the Sahel, and Operation Irene, an EU anti-arms smuggling naval mission.

They exchanged reports on the coronavirus situation in each other's countries, with everyone voicing "solidarity and compassion" with Italy and Spain, where deaths were soaring, Linkevicius noted.

Some proposed creating "humanitarian corridors" so that stranded people could get home and food and medicine could circulate despite border closures, he said.

Some also proposed "common purchasing of medical equipment" and called for EU "public diplomacy" to counter a Russian campaign of "disinformation".

But the ministers did not make any decisions because, technically speaking, Monday's FAC never happened.

"I understand we can't take legally-binding decisions ... so the meeting had to be a Gymnich-type one," Linkevicius said, using an EU term for informal debates.

"When ministers don't meet in person, the [EU] Council is, by definition, not convened and ministers cannot take decisions," an EU official also told this website.

The lack of quorum meant EU states could only adopt things via "written procedure" - a mechanism by which capitals sent electronic documents to Brussels on a secure IT system.

They used it on Monday to extend the mandate of an EU military operation in Mali until 2024 and to agree its €133.7m budget.

And they planned to work that way more often after recently triggering a clause on "exceptional circumstances" in the EU Council's "rules of procedure".

The EU should try to "ensure to the maximum extent possible ... national coordination, public transparency, and the involvement of national parliaments," despite the novel situation, member states pledged.

But all that meant the role of the video-councils, such as Monday's FAC, was now reduced to providing an "opportunity for debates at political level prior to the formal adoption of decisions".

Meanwhile, the fact the foreign ministers spoke on a shared audiovisual channel made it harder to cover issues such as Africa or Middle East security, Linkevicius added.

"It means you cannot have restricted sessions ... You can't discuss sensitive or classified information on open channels," he said.

Body language

And while it was useful to hear fellow ministers' comments on Operation Irene, for instance, the video-format made it harder to do the kind of political haggling that took place when ministers and their entourages met in reality.

"It [the videoconference] is very practical. It's doable. It works, but you cannot replace the live interaction that you normally get with people," Linkevicius said.

"When we meet face-to-face our delegations also hold fringe meetings. Ministers take each other aside for personal chats - there's a lot of things that happen besides the official session," he noted.

Austria and Hungary have vetoed Operation Irene on grounds it would end up bringing migrants to Europe.

And "we couldn't really tackle this issue [on Monday], so I don't think their positions changed very much," Linkevicius said.

The minister's cabinet in Vilnius also had fewer staff due to people working from home, he said.

And at a time of need for "public diplomacy", EU Council spokespersons in Brussels, who usually listened to debates in order to brief press afterward, were unable to do so.

They had to stay put because there was not enough space for social-distancing in the listening rooms.

"We have to do all communication via press releases from now," a spokesperson said.

Say what?

The video-format has also had other glitches.

Last week, for instance, a transport ministers' meeting lasted two hours longer than expected because of IT problems with simultaneous interpretation, so that ministers had to wait to learn what their peers were saying.

But even if Monday was his first video-FAC, Linkevicius recently took part in two similar events as European diplomacy went virtual - a video-talk between Germany and the Baltic states and one between Nordic countries and Baltic nations.

"It's the reality for now," the minister told EUobserver.

"We could become a source of the virus ourselves," Linkevicius said, referring to the EU's forever-travelling diplomatic corps.

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