Josep Borrell, High Representative for Foreign Policy of the EU, suddenly stops the high-level meeting that he is holding by videoconference with the European defense ministers. “Someone has broken into the system. We have to stop, ”he tells the rest of those gathered. “Who are you? You are in our system ”, Borrell claims. The screen does not respond. “Our system has been intercepted,” he warns. “We are working in the public domain.” Suddenly, a young man with a thug face appears on one of the videoconference grids and greets gracefully. The dialogue takes place between a disgruntled Borrell and the young man, who laughs weakly.
-How is it?
-Hi, I’m fine, and you?
“You know you’ve been in and out of a secret conference?”
-Yes, I’m sorry. I am a journalist from the Netherlands. I am sorry to have interrupted your conference. I’m leaving. Thanks.
-This is a crime.
-Yes, so I’m going to leave.
-You better turn off quickly, before the police arrive.
Last week, Daniël Verlaan, a reporter for the RTL Nieuws news service, stowed away at the virtual rendezvous thanks to a mistake by the Netherlands Defense Minister’s team: one of its members tweeted a photograph of the computer screen during the videoconference and in it, the identification number of the virtual appointment and five of the six digits of the password were distinguished in the URL bar. Verlaan, specialized in technology and author of the book I know your password, he opened the lock on the second try.
The journalist assures on WhatsApp that he was only trying to “draw attention” to the insecurity of videoconferences and the “dangers” of sharing pictures of the screens. “And for the record: I only tried it when the Ministry of Defense assured that it was not possible to join only with the PIN number,” he defends himself.
The episode brought out the colors of those who, in theory, have to ensure European security. The physical and the virtual. At one point, before identifying the intruder, Borrel acknowledges: “General, you are absolutely right. We have to invest in security ”. The general in question, the Italian Claudio Graziano, is the president of the EU Military Committee and the main advisor to the High Representative on Defense. Graziano says Borrell was referring to conversations they have had about the importance of “safe lines.” “From a military point of view it is necessary,” he says. At the same time, it downplays the intrusion because “it was not a cyberattack.” And because it was an “informal meeting” of the defense ministers. “We were not discussing secret matters.” On the agenda was the meeting of the leadership of the European Defense Agency, and during the meeting a classified document on the threats prepared by the intelligence services of the Twenty-seven was discussed, although nothing was analyzed “in depth”, according to Borrell. , because it was a video conference.
With Europe hit by the second wave and gripped between lockdowns, European leaders have not met in person for weeks. Council face-to-face appointments have been replaced by virtual ones; the ministers are at a distance; the European Parliament discourages MEPs from going to its headquarters and France cries out because since February no plenary session has been held in Strasbourg, the official seat of the European Parliament; legions of Commission officials have been sent home; meetings have been kept to a minimum. On the avenues of Brussels, where institutions are clustered, hardly a soul is seen. In reality, the EU has become a huge virtual bubble. And it faces the discount minutes of the year weighed down by distance and technology, with the negotiations of the future trade agreement with the United Kingdom in the air and the historic recovery fund threatened by the veto of Poland and Hungary.
It is no longer just a question of communications security, something that the Council has been trying to alleviate since September with the development of a more sophisticated system. Video conferencing has often resulted in ineffective and unproductive appointments in which negotiating becomes an odyssey. Or even in a hot flash. A technical failure due to the collapse of the lines kept the ministers of European Affairs in suspense for an hour, during the Council meeting in which Poland and Hungary confirmed their resistance to the mechanism that links the rule of law and the disbursement of European funds. The EU hung, and time slipping through the hourglass.
“The pandemic has slowed down the work of the institutions,” concedes a source from the Council. And it has become one of the reasons that agreements are not reached. Under normal circumstances “the Polish and Hungarian veto could have already been resolved in a huddle,” says this source. From the Secretary of the Council, in charge of organizing these appointments, they attribute any technical problems to the “local connections”.
During the rush of summer air and early fall, the German rotating presidency pressed to try to close dossiers face-to-face before screen time returned. You could already smell what has ended up happening. “The virtual is being complicated,” says a diplomatic source. “It is not the same as having someone in front of you.”
With screens, spontaneity and closeness are lost, and the so-called “choreography” in which different meeting formats are played, more numerous or reduced and confidential, even in sealed rooms, without windows or mobiles, depending on the need. If there is a disputed point, you can always enter one of them and resolve hand-to-hand. Now the equivalent is to send a whatsapp. Or a call. But it may be that the other looks at the mobile and says: better not lame.
“If they could see each other, maybe Merkel and Macron and Michel could sit with the leaders of Hungary [Viktor Orban] and poland [Mateusz Morawiecki] and tell them: we need to move forward, ”suggests German MEP David McAllister. There is no virtual equivalent of this. That is why many trust the outcome of the year to the European Council scheduled for December 10: there are too many open questions on the table and they hope that it can be present.
“In a videoconference you never know who may be listening in the room,” says another diplomatic source, who confesses that these months are being “a challenge.” With distance, trust is diluted, the ability to concentrate is also lost. Leaders often find themselves surrounded by their teams during telematics councils, when in other circumstances they would be almost alone. What is spoken spreads faster than before. And the positions of the capitals, this source also recognizes, have become more rigid. Ministers and heads of state and government often “just read the notes they already have written and there is no real discussion.” The word passes from one leader to another. Nobody interrupts. Nothing flows organically. Informal conversations do not arise, nor are there proposals for impossible solutions.
Some meetings are still face-to-face. But the discussions have also suffered. “Now you have the problem of social distance and masks, which prevent you from seeing how the other party reacts. If he smiles or gets serious. Losing non-verbal communication makes it very difficult, ”says socialist MEP Eider Gardiazabal, one of the negotiators of the so-called Recovery and Resilience Instrument, the mechanism that the capitals affected by the covid thirsty await, but has not just arrived.
The three European institutions (Council, Parliament and Commission; they are called “trilogues”) participate in this negotiation and now they attend with small teams, while the rest go online. According to Gardiazabal, it suffers when you cannot take advantage of a recess to approach, let’s say, the Council, and file the content of a paragraph right there.
“You can’t have those informal circles. Everything is more corseted ”. And “less agile”. Because just as it turns out that whoever is chairing the meeting, in this case Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis, does not even attend in person. Through the plasma, he lacks an overview of the room. And maybe someone asks him to speak with his hand, but the president escapes him. “And that’s not to mention the problems of interpretation,” adds Gardiazabal. In multilingual institutions this point is critical. If they are remote connections, it requires that the sound does not fail and that the image does not freeze. If they collapse there is no simultaneous translation. In the discussions of the Recovery Fund they have chosen to always debate in English.
The aforementioned MEP McAllister, who chairs the UK Coordination Group, which monitors the development of the Brexit negotiations, says that about 25% of the time he speaks telematically, technology plays some kind of trick. And when asked about the outcome of Brexit, he replies: “In diplomatic negotiations nothing can replace physical contact. The pandemic has put an additional burden on European politics ”.
For 10 days, the complex negotiations of the future commercial relationship between London and Brussels, the culmination of years of tug of war, have walked on the wire because of the pandemic. On November 19 Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator, announced that he should isolate himself due to the positive of one of the team members.
The constant coming and going of dozens of negotiators through the Eurotunnel was thus abruptly interrupted. Due to the rules of distancing, in recent weeks only some traveled physically, others connected telematically. They had even developed a good online dynamic. From the European group they recognize that it could be feasible to polish the more technical questions by videoconference. But at the core of the disagreement – fisheries, governance, competition – not there: that is the realm of politics, that which can only be saved with a face-to-face between Barnier and his British counterpart David Frost.
This Friday, in the absence of 33 days for a brutal outcome or an exit with an agreement, fate was benevolent: after a quarantine without symptoms, “complying with Belgian laws”, Barnier took the train again with his team and crossed the Canal de la Mancha to try to negotiate in person what is unfeasible through plasma. In London they continue.