Documents obtained by Brussels-based news service EUobserver reveal that the majority of EU laws passed in 2016 were agreed behind closed doors in secret meetings between the European Parliament and national governments. This is against a backdrop of EU claims to be the most transparent legislator in the world, and an increasing crisis of confidence among EU citizens.
In accordance with the procedure agreed by the EU’s 28 Member States in the Treaties, all EU laws are proposed the European Commission. They are then sent to the two legislating institutions of the EU, the directly-elected European Parliament and the Council of the EU, which represents the national governments of the Member States. The Treaties foresee two separate readings in both “chambers” which should, at least in the case of the European Parliament, take place in public. There has long been criticism of the Council meeting in secret, while the Parliament boasts that all its committee and plenary meetings are webstreamed live.
However, the practice at the European Parliament has been revealed by this report to be far from the theory. Under the presidency of Martin Schulz from 2012-2017, more and more power was centralised, more and more deals done in secret. This lack of democracy and transparency accelerated after the 2014 European Parliament elections when Schulz devised a “partnership” with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, backed up by a parliamentary majority of the assembly’s two largest Political Groups, the centre-right EPP and centre-left S&D.
While in a normal democracy the parliament would be scrutinising the executive and holding it to account, in the Juncker/Schulz world, the Commission colludes with the Parliement to ensure that all its legislative proposals are rammed through at high speed with minimal consultation or transparency. This Juncker/Schulz method of legislating reached its climax in 2016 when not a single law ended up in a second reading, all of them being concluded in secretive so-called “first reading agreements”. Some 20 laws went through “early second reading” last year, including the data protection regulation. But this procedure is different from a full second reading.
Second readings are important because they open up the debate to the public at large. Removing this phase means the details are being agreed behind closed doors and citizens have to rely on insider information to understand what is happening. As EUObserver reports: “Well-connected lobbyists or specialised reporters may be able to follow the law-making process, but most people will struggle to make sense of why or how decisions were made. MEPs may debate the bill at the committee level, but the real decisions remain broadly out of sight.
In this case, the legislation is adopted after a compromise is reached between MEPs and representatives of the 28 Member States at co-called ‘trilogue’ meetings (as the Commission also attends) which then gets rubber stamped by both the Parliament and Council without any proper debate. Furthermore, the closed-door talks between Parliament and Council are off limits to the public. Minutes are usually not taken. If any notes are taken, obtaining them is also difficult because the meetings do not formally exist. Exercising the right of every EU citizen to access EU documents to a meeting that never officially took place can be a daunting exercise in patience and disappointment.
The lack of transparency has become so serious that the EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly whose job is to defend citizens’ rights in the EU administration, opened a formal investigation into the ‘trilogue’ procedure in May 2015. So far this has not delivered any results, partly because EP President Martin Schulz refused to cooperate with Ms O’Reilly by supplying a series of documents she requested, or allowing her staff to observe trilogues.
If the EU leadership wants to destroy the Union, it is going about it the right way. Now that Martin Schulz had departed the EU stage, and there is talk that Jean-Claude Juncker may follow him, a window of opportunity is opening up for practices to change. In the interest of shoring up public confidence in the EU, it is essential that the legislative process become fully open, transparent and accessible. Otherwise, EU laws will have no legitimacy with the general public in the Member States.