MEPs back the Ombudsman’s special report asking for a more transparent Council and call for quick implementation of her and the Parliament’s recommendations.
On Thursday, Parliament approved the report on the Ombudsman’s strategic inquiry on the transparency of the legislative process in the preparatory bodies of the Council of the EU with 479 votes, against 18 and 81 abstentions.
Democratic accountability and transparency
MEPs agree with the Ombudsman’s view that citizens have a democratic right to follow in detail, understand, and participate in the legislative process, of which the Council is an integral part. They also believe that increased transparency would help hold governments accountable by forcing them to stop unduly blaming the EU for unpopular decisions while acting as a safeguard against the spread of speculation, fake news and conspiracy theories.
Mindful of the widespread criticism about a democratic deficit in the EU, MEPs stress that having one of its three main institutions take decisions without transparency is harmful to the entire European project. In light of the May 2019 European elections, Parliament reminds that fully democratic and highly transparent decision-making is indispensable to increase citizens’ trust in the EU.
Structural imbalance between the two legislators
The text deplores that, unlike committee meetings in Parliament, legislative meetings and most debates in the Council are held behind closed doors. MEPs recall that the Council indiscriminately restricts distribution of a large proportion of documents relating to legislative files, while the Council register is incomplete and not user-friendly.
Parliament stresses that the lack of information also prevents national parliaments from monitoring their governments’ actions in the Council and leads to a further imbalance that gives the Council a structural advantage over the Parliament.
Recommendations to the Council of the EU
The text fully supports the European Ombudsman’s recommendation to the Council and urges their quick implementation.
The Ombudsman recommends that the Council:
- systematically records information about member state positions in Council preparatory bodies; and
- develops clear and publicly available criteria for how it designates documents as ‘LIMITE’, in line with EU law; and
- applies those criteria to review status of documents at an early stage, before the final adoption of a legislative act or informal negotiations in ‘trilogues’.
MEPs go beyond the recommendations of the Ombudsman and call on the Council to:
- align its working methods with the standards of a parliamentary and participatory democracy as required by the Treaties;
- transform itself into a true legislative chamber in order to create a real bicameral legislative system with the Parliament, with the Commission acting as the executive; and
- replace consensus-based decision making with qualified majority voting to ensure that a formal public vote takes place.
Lastly, the Parliament calls for the Eurogroup’s role to be fully formalised during the next revision of the Treaties, in order to guarantee proper public access and parliamentary control.
TOOM Yana (ALDE, ET) rapporteur for the Committee on Petitions said: “The Council holds on to the idea that their work is pure diplomacy. The reality is that the Council and the Parliament are co-legislators. Therefore, both institutions should conduct their work in the same way: in an open and transparent and open manner. Accountability is crucial to safeguard the European idea, especially in the time of Brexit.”
LEINEN Jo (S&D, DE) rapporteur for the Committee on Constitutional Affairs said: “The secrecy of the Council diminishes citizens' trust and gives room for fake news. Although member state governments comprise the Council, “the EU” gets the blame for unpopular measures, which is irresponsible and has to end immediately. This lack of transparency is incompatible with the democratic principles of the European Treaties. By classifying documents indiscriminately, the Council deprives citizens and national parliaments from key information on months of negotiations. In contrast, EP committee meetings have been livestreamed for years.”
The European Ombudsman opened a strategic inquiry in March 2017 to look into the current practices of the Council of the EU, in particular its lack of transparency regarding public access to legislative document and transparency in the decision-making process. The report concluded that the practices in the Council, specifically during the preparatory stages at Coreper and working group level constitute maladministration.
On 9 February 2018, the Ombudsman made three specific recommendation and several suggestion to the Council of the EU. The Council has not replied to these findings and the matter came to the attention of the European Parliament.