MEPs should remember that their primary loyalty is to the people who elected them - they must cast aside the EU's secret legislative process
As the European parliament (EP) begins its new term major questions hang over the lack of transparency and accountability of its legislative process. In the previous five-year term (2004-2009) over 80% of new measures were agreed behind closed doors in secret "trilogue" sessions, meetings between the Council of the European Union (the 27 governments), the EP and the European Commission.
Codecision is the EU legislative process which requires the EP and the council to agree on the final text. In the parliament there are four stages to the procedure.
Trilogues were originally intended to cover uncontroversial and complex technical measures but they are now used to negotiate the vast majority of new measures going through the EU. Meetings take place before the parliament adopts its formal first reading opinion and the council adopts its "common position".
During these negotiations the parliament is represented by its rapporteur and the shadow rapporteurs (from other political groups). Documents discussed in the trilogue meetings are not published and after agreement is reached the parliament's committees and full plenary sessions cannot change as much as a dot or comma. Surely we must acknowledge that open parliamentary sessions cannot have a meaningful debate if the "deal" has already been agreed.
In the last five-year term 69.5% of the parliament's business were concluded at first reading. 11.8% were approved without amendment by early second reading agreements (also settled in secret trilogues), just 12.8% went through the classical second reading votes. This process of course suits the council (the EU governments). It likes cosy meetings where governments can negotiate and seal a secret deal that cannot be overturned by open debate in the parliament.
The council's view on access to first and second reading documents was summed up by Hubert Legal, of the council legal service, when he appeared before the House of Lords select committee on the EU in June.
During ongoing legislative procedures there is not a general right for the public to access documents if the fact of giving access would undermine the institutional decision-making process.
Legal goes on to say that when "the procedure is completed" (ie: the measure is agreed) public access is given. Thus the public and civil society have no right to know what is being discussed before it is adopted. Just think of the uproar if a national parliament behaved in this fashion. Imagine a government publishing a bill, then negotiating in secret with other parties, before presenting the full parliament with as a fait accompli.
The council of the European Union, with the tacit support of the European parliament, seems intent on trying to justify a process of decision-making reminiscent of colonial times. Do they truly consider it dangerous for the people to know what is being decided in their name?
First reading trilogue "deals" are held in secret, no records (minutes) are released. The process removes meaningful debate, disagreements, options, votes in committee meetings and the plenary sessions – both of which are open and the documents discussed are publicly accessible. The practice pre-empts a wider debate in parliament, the media and society at large. Respect for the European Parliament has never been more fragile, the June elections saw the voter turnout drop to its lowest ever number, just 43% voted.
It is a problem that is set to deepen even further unless the European parliament casts aside "inter-institutional loyalty" to the council and remembers that its primary loyalty is to the people who elected it.