Transparency in EU policymaking: What happens in Brussels, stays in Brussels?

Written by Emily O'Reilly on 6 June 2018 in Opinion
Opinion

Faced with mounting pressure and scepticism, democratic institutions need to recalibrate how they work, so as to restore public credibility in their essential work, writes Emily O’Reilly.

Emily O'Reilly | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual


What happens in Brussels, stays in Brussels. That is the attitude of many in Council, who seem quite content to preserve the status quo regarding the relative lack of transparency on Council’s legislative deliberations.

The European Parliament, by its very nature, is an open and transparent body. However, it is fair to say that the Council is not a star pupil among the EU’s institutions when it comes to transparency and accountability for its role in the EU’s decision-making process.

My strategic inquiry into this area looked at what improvements Council can make to address this shortcoming. The decision to refer the matter to the European Parliament, by means of a special report, was not taken lightly.


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This is the first time in this legislative term that I have chosen to make a special report. In my view, this issue goes to the core of the challenges facing democratic institutions in general and the EU institutions in particular.

With mounting pressure and scepticism, democratic institutions need to recalibrate how they work, in order to restore public credibility in their essential work. Transparency of the EU’s law-making process and ensuring accountability for EU decision-making are paramount. Council’s formal positions in legislative negotiations are forged in its more than 150 committees and working parties.

In order for the public, civil society and elected representatives to be able to hold governments to account for the decisions they make on EU laws, they need to know how their governments positioned themselves in the legislative process.

This first requires legislative discussions in preparatory bodies to be documented and, second that such documents are easily, rapidly and consistently accessible.

At present, there appears to be is no uniform approach to reporting and documenting the legislative discussions in the preparatory bodies.

Council also takes a selective approach as to how it discloses documents that do exist; often restricting access unnecessarily. My recommendations and suggestions to Council seek to ensure these issues are addressed.

One particular frustration, of which MEPs will be well aware, is the practice of member state governments criticising decisions taken “in Brussels” towards their domestic audiences. Yet, very often, during the legislative process “in Brussels”, they had supported and/or shaped the very decision they subsequently criticise.

Systematically recording the identity of member states expressing positions in the preparatory bodies, and proactively disclosing this information would go some way to addressing this problem.

Council transparency is also a priority for elected representatives outside Brussels. Earlier this year, 26 national parliamentary chambers across the EU threw their support behind a paper from the Dutch Parliament calling for Council to be made more transparent.

I understand that Parliament’s petitions and constitutional affairs committees are already making preparations to start work on the special report. It would be a significant step to have the backing of Parliament’s plenary before the end of this legislative term.

That way, we can ensure that the EU’s next legislative term delivers a real breakthrough on the transparency of EU law-making and the accountability for its decision-making.

About the author

Emily O'Reilly is the European Ombudsman

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