• 2020-04-16

Parliament and the Pandemic - What is there to be done?

Author: Nataša Vučković

An appeal to governments of the Western Balkans to enable their respective parliaments to resume their work, made last week by Tanja Fajon MEP, and backed by the European Parliament rapporteur for Serbia, Vladimir Bilčik, once again refocused our attention on the stillness that has permeated our National Assembly since the second week of March.

In deliberating on whether or not the National Assembly could have convened to declare a state of emergency, both those in favour and those opposed make valid points. Perhaps the risk was indeed too high and technically speaking, there wasn’t enough time to prepare for an online session. Perhaps, the session could have been held in such a manner so as not to jeopardise the health of MPs, administration and other supporting staff involved in session preparation and monitoring. However, one thing is certain, that it was not only possible but necessary at least to facilitate consultations between MP group leaders at the collegium, to exchange opinions and reach conclusions which should have been publicly presented as an interpretation or explanation of why the National Assembly was unable to convene and declare a state of emergency, as instructed under the Constitution. The situation was further complicated by scheduled elections, and by the fact that for over a year now, some of the opposition have boycotted the elections. Therefore, opposition claims in favour of convening a session of the National Assembly to declare a state of emergency could not have had the needed severity at the time or even the credibility. At any rate, this was over a month ago, constitutional and legal analysis of the situation has already been performed and it is likely that based on said analysis, propositions will be drafted in order to specify constitutional provisions the next time a discussion on amending the Constitution is to take place.

Since declaring the state of emergency, numerous regulations have been introduced, at both government decree and ministerial order levels, many of which have affected the exercise of human and civil rights. The decision on declaring a state of emergency and all subsequent decisions must be consequently validated by the current legislature of the National Assembly, if not sooner, then immediately upon the termination of the state of emergency.

However, even if the National Assembly is at this very moment is still unable to perform its legislative role in the usual manner and work in plenary sittings, due to the fact that for some reason, it is unable to adapt to the current situation, unlike other parliaments in Europe that continued their sessions, its control function remains relevant.

That is to say, according to what we ‘hear on the grape vine’, and what we are able to deduce from this is that over the past several weeks, the Government has been busy redistributing the budget; reducing, cancelling or reallocating budget items previously adopted in accordance with law, all to meet the numerous and, in most cases probably well justified requirements during a pandemic such as this. The massive resources necessary for healthcare, public services, equipment procurement and transport, production, are costly and this cost must undoubtedly be covered by the budget. But, where the funds come from and where it is reallocated, which programmes are to be shut down and how priorities are to be determined must all be transparent and the citizens must be informed. At this moment, the Government is performing these tasks without any control whatsoever, using the state of emergency as justification for doing so. Therefore, it seems reasonable to propose that the work of the National Assembly be revived, at least through the work of its Committees, primarily the Committee on Finance, whereby the Minister of Finance would present the situation and the decisions rendered by the Government and the Ministry to MPs. Excellent news is that the EU will support Serbia by reallocating pre-accession assistance funds to mitigate the consequences of the pandemic. Is anyone is the process of preparing a plan for the efficient utilisation of these funds? Has a consultation process been established? As usual, when it comes to the budget, EU funds in particular, monitoring the implementation of measures and expenditure is of utmost importance to avoiding situations of malpractice and misuse.

In addition to the Committee on Finance, the need for the Committee on Health to convene is rather obvious, as well. The situation in hospitals, the safety of doctors, medical staff and all other healthcare personnel, are just some of the burning issues that members of the Committee would have something to say about, I assume. Need we mention that a session of the Committee on Human and Minority Rights would be a great opportunity to clarify certain decisions and their consequences during the pandemic and declared state of emergency? We are encountering significant obstacles in exercising employment rights, rights to social protection, instructions for both employers and employees are ambiguous and contradictory, public vs private sector – wouldn’t the Committee on Labour also have something to say or ask of the competent Ministry? And finally, for a country continually criticised for its lack of freedom of the media, the Culture and Information Committee should be able to analyse the current situation which, more than in ordinary times, requires media accountability, truthfulness of information and preventing the spread of fake news.

Our Assembly Committees are not large, the largest is comprised of 19 members, making it possible to organise committee sessions without much difficulty and without jeopardising its members’ health or contributing to the spread of the infection. At any rate, the National Assembly should not be perceived as an archaic institution – and it too must strive to adjust to current conditions and preserve its role in terms of the distribution of government.

Today, we can all agree that the most important task at hand is to protect human live and curb the spread of the infection. We also know that almost all governments were taken by surprise by the pandemic. However, the way we manage this crisis, in addition to caring for the individual, solidarity with vulnerable groups and supporting the healthcare system, we must also demonstrate our inclination to respect institutions and determination not to ignore democratic processes. One of the underlying principles of democracy is the National Assembly’s control over the work of the government. Even when we know the government has the support of the majority and that parliamentary debates are not what we want them to be. Even when it was claimed by many that this parliament lacks legitimacy and that it, as well as its successor, should be ignored. Crises have proven that whenever we turn our backs on institutions, it is then difficult for us to depend on them, and it is difficult for them to uphold their roles. However, without parliament democracy is difficult to establish, and democracy, we cannot give up on.

This is the text that reflects the views of the author and does not represent the views of either the Balkan Democracy Fund or the Embassies of the Kingdom of Norway in Belgrade.

The text was written as part of a project funded by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshal Fund of the United States (BTD) and the Embassy of the Kingdom of Norway in Belgrade.

 

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