New figures indicate that so-called “secret EU law making” in 2016 matched a previous all-time high, with every disagreement between the European Union (EU) Council and the European Parliament settled behind closed doors in private “trilogue” meetings.
According to figures obtained from the European Parliament by EUobserver, not one EU bill in 2016 proceeded from its first reading to a full second reading debate, with all disagreements between the EU Council and the European Parliament settled behind the scenes in meetings between small groups of leading MEPs and Council representatives, overseen by the European Commission.
Vicky Marissen of Pact European Affairs, a Brussels-based consultancy specialising in EU decision-making procedures, described the situation as “astonishing, but it is just a continuation of a trend that we have been seeing for quite a while now”.
Back in 2004, more than half of all bills proceeded to a second reading, but by 2014 there were no second second readings at all. There were just four in 2015, before last year’s return to zero. The European Digital Rights (EDRi) campaign has described the trilogue system as a “non-democratic, non-accountable and non-transparent process” which “undermines EU democracy and transparency”.
Brexit campaign leader Nigel Farage has said that trilogues neatly symbolise the way “big business, big banks and big bureaucrats” have overthrown democracy in the EU.
How the EU’s lawmaking process encourages secret deals
European Union lawmaking is unusual in that it is the bloc’s combined executive and civil service, the wholly un-elected European Commission, which has the sole power to initiate legislation.
Transparency campaigners have long complained that the Commission’s behind-the-scenes decision-making is unduly influenced by corporate vested interests. A analysis by Transparency International of 4,318 declared lobby meetings “by the top tier of European Commission officials” between December 2014 and June 2015, for example, showed that more than 75 per cent were with corporate lobbyists. NGOs accounted for just 8 per cent of meetings, think tanks 4 per cent and local authorities 2 per cent.
Officials from more than 150 obscure committees and working parties then prepare the Commission proposals which come out of these meetings for the EU Council to examine. The Council is comprised of ministers from the governments of the member-states, but debates and votes on legislative proposals are held behind closed doors.
An element of open scrutiny should come in at the level of the European Parliament level, which can attempt to amend or reject legislation as part of the so-called “co-decision” process. MEPs vote “literally hundreds of times” during plenary sessions, usually by a simple show of hands, but, on rare occasions when the Council and Parliament are not in agreement at a bill’s first reading, legislation can be opened up to a public debate in a second reading.
Without second readings, EUobserver believes that only “Well-connected lobbyists or specialised reporters may be able to follow the law-making process”.