Opinion: EU transparency reforms can’t be left half done

General view of the roundtable, Council of the EU, Brussels
Copyright: European Union
Roundtable at the Competitiveness Council, February 2020 in Brussels

On the 1st of July, Germany takes over the presidency of the Council of Ministers from Croatia. The Council of Ministers, often known as ‘the Council’, is one of the EU’s co-legislators. As President, Germany will plan and chair all meetings between ministers from the EU countries throughout 2020.

A year ago, Finland was in charge of the Council. During six months, the Finnish government made more internal documents public in the Council’s on-line registry, communicated on Twitter when new legislative negotiations between the Council and the European Parliament (so called trilogues) started, and recorded lobby meetings with senior officials at the Finnish EU embassy in Brussels.

With these minor reforms, the Finnish government aimed to show its EU colleagues that nothing negative would happen from opening up a little bit. The strategy worked: During the next presidency, the Croatian government followed suit, and now the German government is set to continue with the new tradition.

© Lauri Heikkinen/valtioneuvoston kanslia
Finnish Prime Minister’s announcement to Parliament on the country’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union

But in the Council, even these small, cosmetic changes met with strong resistance. Recent attempts for a greater transparency reform — following a critical report from the European Ombudsman in 2018 that called for “legislative transparency” — have been blocked by some governments in the Council. Among them are Portugal and France, two countries that soon will hold the Council presidency. Therefore many eyes now turn to Germany.

“The German Government has so far sat on the fence when it comes to the legislative reform process and boosting democratic oversight of Council decision-making, neither being a strong advocate nor a strong opposer. This is not good enough,” write the transparency NGOs, Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) and Lobbycontrol, in the newly published report Tainted love – corporate lobbying and the upcoming German EU Presidency.

Corporate Europe Observatory
Tainted Love report

Today, it is not only the usual suspects — journalists and activists — who complain about the secretive nature of the Council; the critics are closer to home. The Danish and Dutch national parliaments, for example, are demanding much more transparency in order to control what their governments are doing in Brussels. So is the European Parliament.

Inspired by the Ombudsman report, Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Slovenia and Sweden all called for more transparency in the Council. But even these pro-transparency governments stop short of demanding real legislative transparency.

Legislative transparency would mean that EU citizens could find out the positions of national governments on each legislative file, before the actual decision is taken. This would allow people to influence their political representatives and hold them responsible for their decisions.

In the EU system there are two legislative bodies: the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. In the parliament, there is legislative transparency. The political groups’ positions and proposed amendments are available ahead of the votes, and the debates and votes in the committees are live-streamed.

Legislative transparency would mean that EU citizens could find out the positions of national governments on each legislative file, before the actual decision is taken.

In the Council, only the final vote is recorded. All stages leading up to the vote happen behind closed doors. It’s impossible for the public to find out whether it was the Polish or German government that scrapped an article in a proposed EU law, whether it was Belgium or Bulgaria that managed to raise a certain quota, or what the French or Italian governments got in exchange for voting yes to the final deal.

CEO and Lobby Control accuse governments of making trade-offs between different legislative files behind closed doors. One example is when, according to sources in the report, Germany and the UK traded support for each other’s positions on two proposed EU laws that have strictly nothing to do with one another: The UK supported the German government’s position (influenced by German car manufacturers) to water down the CO2 targets for passenger cars, in exchange for Germany supporting the UK government’s position on the European Banking Union

The culture in the Council of Ministers is not a parliamentary culture, with political conflict and open debate. But the Council is a legislative body in the EU system, not a dinner party for diplomats. EU laws can never be truly legitimate if Europe’s citizens cannot understand and influence them. True democratic transparency is not a reform that can be left half done.