The European Parliament will elect its president remotely next Tuesday, overruling precedent amid Europe’s runaway coronavirus caseload.
The legislative body’s political leaders approved the decision on Thursday, concluding it was “dangerous” for MEPs to gather in Strasbourg and vote in person, citing the “additional threats and challenges deriving from the coronavirus and its Omicron variant.” France, like much of the Continent, is experiencing record daily infections.
The decision was outlined in a document issued by Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola, who is acting as the Parliament’s interim president following the death of outgoing President David Sassoli earlier this week. Metsola is also the leading candidate to replace Sassoli.
The move removes a symbolic moment of pandemic recovery that had been expected as recently as December, when Sassoli decided to hold the upcoming election “in the hemicycle” to respect the “solemn nature” of the leadership vote. Since then, however, the Omicron variant has blanketed Europe and pushed governments to implement new travel restrictions.
MEPs will select a new leader only days after Sassoli passed away, just a week before his two-and-a-half-year term was set to end.
In the race, Metsola is representing the Parliament’s largest group, the center-right European People’s Party. Her front-runner status was secured in December when Sassoli decided not to run for reelection.
Three other candidates from smaller groups have also put their names in the race, including Swedish MEP Alice Bah Kuhnke, representing the Greens, Polish MEP Kosma Złotowski from the European Conservatives and Reformists, and Spanish MEP Sira Rego, a member of the far-left group.
MEPs have been voting online at every plenary session since the COVID pandemic broke out in 2020. But the presidential election is a different matter, as Parliament rules imply it must be done in person.
Still, many MEPs welcomed Metsola’s move as a necessary way to adopt parliamentary democracy to the ongoing rise of COVID infections throughout Europe.
“The incidents in Strasbourg have gone up by more than 50 percent,” said Daniel Freund, a German Green MEP. “We in the Parliament have held online votes, including secret votes, for almost two years now, and never, ever has there been any concern.”
But some expressed concern about the lack of guarantees that online votes would be secure, emphasizing the risk that MEPs could let their assistants or any other person vote on their behalf.
One official from the liberal Renew Europe group said there were fears that “it would not be the best way to guarantee the confidentiality of the vote.” Another Parliament official fretted that a remote vote may lead some to “question the democratic legitimacy for the future president.”