EU AMA: What are the EU trilogues?

In Ask Me Anything, we tackle questions about the European Union that intrigue and perplex. This month, Linda A. Thompson finds out what happens in the trilogue meetings
Illustration by Shirin Begmyradova

By Linda A Thompson

Linda A Thompson is a Belgian journalist who writes on EU policy and legal activism

18 Sep 2023

Simply put, trilogues are where European Union laws get made. They are closed-door, informal negotiations in which representatives of the three main EU institutions – the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of the European Union – hash out a compromise on law proposals that will impact the lives of 450 million citizens.  

For each legislative proposal put forward by the Commission, the EU’s executive body, each institution appoints its negotiators and establishes its mandate for these three-way discussions.  

On the Parliament side, the negotiating team consists of the Chair or a Vice-Chair of the responsible committee, as well as the rapporteur and shadow rapporteurs from each political group that wishes to participate. On the Council side, representatives of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers attend.  

The Commission is there to act as a mediator of sorts, helping the EU’s two legislative bodies reconcile their differing positions. The trilogue meetings are informal because representatives meet outside their institutions’ official decision-making channels.  

If the negotiators manage to work out a deal, the agreement they’ve reached needs to get the thumbs-up from the Parliament and the Council under both institutions’ formal legislative procedure, before becoming law across the 27-member bloc.  

During Parliament’s 2014 to 2019 legislative term, no fewer that 1,185 trilogue meetings took place on 346 pieces of proposed legislation, with an average of four meetings needed for the three institutions to reach a deal on any given proposal.  

As effective as these meetings might be, they’re often criticised for being shrouded in mystery. Unlike parliamentary meetings, for instance, no up-to-date calendars or post-meeting minutes are published; nor are the meetings live-streamed.  

This has led anti-corruption group Transparency International EU to describe trilogue meetings as “one of the principal transparency blind spots in the EU legislative process”, while Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels NGO dedicated to exposing corporate lobbying, has warned that the opacity of the meetings mostly benefits well-resourced and well-connected lobbyists. 

Media organisations and MEPs have also joined the call for the EU institutions to lift the curtain on trilogues and release key documents while negotiations are ongoing, thereby allowing the public to hold decision-makers to account before it’s too late.  

Currently, most trilogue documents are released only after negotiations have drawn to a close, or in response to individual requests for public access to specific trilogue documents. The EU institutions, for their part, have argued that releasing trilogue documents while negotiators are still in the room would undermine the decision-making process.  

Nevertheless, in 2015 as part of a push to make the EU decision-making process more transparent, the three EU institutions committed to putting in place a joint database on the state of play of legislative files – one that would allow a non-specialist audience to find easily understood information and documents on each proposal voted into EU law.  

According to an EU official, the portal should be ready “as soon as possible” next year. “It will display the most important events and information,” they said. “The portal will then constantly improve, to add more information and functionalities.” 

Let’s hope it’s worth the nine-year wait. 

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