European Democracy Behind Closed Doors

Europe’s leaders are using informal talks to streamline the legislative process and make the 28-nation bloc more efficient. But is it democratic?
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European Union institutions face many complaints. They are called too bureaucratic, too stodgy. But they are rarely seen as too fast – haste is a new criticism for Brussels. But the E.U. legislative process has been made so fast in the past few years that some fear the effect on European democracy. There is too much going on between the institutions and too many deals out of public view, critics say.

These secret talks are made possible because of an informal process involving the European Parliament, the European Council, which represents E.U. member state governments, and the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm. This so-called triologue was originally used only in emergency cases. Now, however, some 80 percent of all European legislation is pushed through using the streamlined method.

“No system that calls itself democratic should have to accept that,” Tom Bunyan, director of the British civil rights group Statewatch, said. “The triologue proceedings have to either be made transparent or eliminated,” said Sven Giegold, a member of the European Parliament for the Green party.

To understand what makes the procedure so attractive and problematic at the same time, one has to look at the E.U. legislative process as it is taught to schoolchildren.

The European Commission has the right to propose legislation. The European Parliament, the bloc’s only democratically elected body, and the European Council receive the draft legislation at the same time. Both institutions then discuss the proposal and decide on whether to accept it. If the Council and Parliament can’t come to an agreement, which is often the case, then a second round of negotiation is needed and the E.U. Commission has to work again on draft legislation. Only when the second round fails to bring a resolution, should the three-party talks then start.

The advantage of this multilayered system is the following: the decision-making process is transparent and plausible. The institutions have to come to a result openly. If there is an interested journalist, lobbyist or citizen, they now know which institutions represent what position.

During Latvia’s current E.U. presidency – which rotates between the member states – 24 of 27 new laws passed were done via the triologue.

There is only one problem: this procedure is very slow. Sometimes it can take several years. This is why E.U. institutions have eagerly attempted to shorten the legislative process.

The informal triologue enables the institutions to have talks even before the first round of negotiations start. This means that the Parliament, Commission and Council sit together and decide what kind of compromise might work for them. A new law could go through even before the first rounds of discussion take place. This “first reading agreement” is known to be particularly efficient.

The Amsterdam Treaty in 2004 introduced the procedure and it quickly became so effective that it has now become the norm. During Latvia’s current E.U. presidency – which rotates between the member states – 24 of 27 new laws passed were done via the triologue. But how do these meetings take place?

By Brussels’ standards, they are quite an intimate affair, with only 20 to 30 people joining the talks over coffee and mineral water. All three institutions send their own representative and all parties have equal weight.

The problem is that all meetings take place behind closed doors and there is no formal agreement regulating them. E.U. players say it’s easier for them to compromise out of public view, so the talks are beneficial to all three institutions.

Still, the triologue is not official E.U. procedure, meaning they are extremely opaque and bad for European democracy.

The ombudswoman Emily O’Reilly, who is responsible for complaints against E.U. institutions, has now promised to tackle the problem of transparency. "We are aware of the problem of the triologue proceedings," she said.

She plans to propose measures about what to do about it this coming Thursday.


This article first appeared in Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]