The EU treaties describe the proper procedure for making laws; this procedure is regularly subverted in practice by the secretive ‘trilogue’ process.
The EUobserver website has some information about the growing secrecy of EU law-making here. The organisation, largely supportive of the EU, describes itself as follows: “EUobserver is an independent online newspaper which values free thinking and plain speech. We aim to support European democracy by giving people the information they need to hold the EU establishment to account.”
The article describes, and echoes concerns from other observers, how there has been an evident trend to short-cut the established process of making laws.
“Secret EU law making reached a high in 2016 that has only been matched once before, according to figures obtained by EUobserver.”
The normal procedure starts with a bill initiated by the European Commission. The bill then goes through the European Parliament and to the Council of Europe, which represents the member states. If agreement is not reached at the first reading then the bill, possibly amended, is given a second reading.
“In 2004, over half of all the bills went to a second reading. This dropped to zero for the first time in 2014, then to four in 2015, and then again to zero in 2016.”
“Second readings are important because they open up the debate to the public at large. Removing this phase means the details are being agreed behind closed doors and people have to rely on insider information to understand what is happening.”
Short-cutting the second reading reduces the amount of debate within the Union’s institutions and, perhaps more important, makes it much more difficult for the public at large to learn what is going on. Lobbyists and other private interest groups have more ready access to the internal discussions.
Those who favour the change of process argue that it is more efficient. It also enables the President of the EU, which rotates every six months, to get more done under his or her leadership.
The normal process, which can be lengthy but transparent, is by-passed by a series of ‘trilogues’:
“Rather than the lengthy and more transparent process, many bills are passed at first reading after closed-door negotiations between small groups of MEPs and national diplomats with an EU commission official as mediator.”
This process can usually enable a bill to be passed on the first reading, without the inconvenience of a second, public reading.
“The closed-door talks are off limits to the public. Minutes are usually not taken…. If any notes are taken, obtaining them is also difficult because the meetings do not formally exist.”
Since 2013 the EUobserver has reported on the increasingly obscure processes of law-making. In 2015 the EU’s own ombudsman opened an investigation into secret EU law-making and the trilogue process. The figures show that the shift towards increasing secrecy has not been reversed.
The EUobserver concluded that:
“The standard of EU governance should be a reason for citizens to want to stay in the Union, rather than an excuse to leave.”