One of the main goals of the post-Lisbon Institutional reforms was to make EU decision-making more efficient. Following many claims that EU legislative processes are overly bureaucratized, the main goal of such efforts was to make the EU law-making more fit for the many ongoing challenges requiring great institutional re-activeness. The result of such fitness operation is quite striking.
Just fifteen years ago two-thirds of EU laws were negotiated over a period of two-three years. In the current European Parliament’s (EP) term, most texts are the result of so-called “1st reading agreements”, allowing the Parliament and Council to approve a text at the earliest stage of the procedure. A considerable improvement on the efficiency’s side, since 1st reading agreements are concluded on average in 16 months.
This marked change in the EU’s decision-making efficiency was facilitated by the increased use of informal meetings between the Commission, the Council and the Parliament, commonly referred to as trilogues. Although these are nowhere to be found inside the EU Treaties, every EU bubble member knows them, and often wonders about their mysterious nature. You will have a hard time if you wish to attend them, in fact, unless you’re part of the small group of Commission officials, Members of Parliament in charge of the file and Council diplomats representing its rotating presidency.
As I have sought to ironically suggest, trilogues are not liked by many. And no wonder so.
On the first line of the anti-trilogue army are EU lobbyists, for which the increased use of trilogues has narrowed down the channels available to influence policy-makers. Meetings in fact take place in Camera, meaning that, besides the negotiating teams of each institution, no one is allowed to attend them. Even more criticisms have risen the difficulty one finds to follow trilogues generally speaking, since most often reporting on their outcomes also happens (when it happens) behind closed doors. In other words, in the case of the EP for instance, members are not obliged to report to the general public about the stage of ongoing trilogue negotiations. What is more, no obligation exists to even disclose the dates and participants to trilogues, nor their agenda.
The negative fame of trilogues has further boomed after the European Ombudsman, the authority supervising compliance with EU laws in administrative procedures across the Union, opened an Inquiry on the use of trilogues, first in the EP and then for the Council. All such claims are even more effective when directed towards the Council of the EU, which, to date, does not systematically disclose any documents explaining its position on a file nor that of single Member States. Moreover, unlike the Parliament, the Council has not yet given itself internal rules requiring for disclosure of documents prior to the final vote.
On the whole, since trilogues are still considered “informal meetings”, they are not regulated by EU Treaties or by any official piece of EU legislation, although they have become a standard practice in EU inter-institutional negotiations. Such absence of rules makes transparency very context dependent and creates potential for opaque practices, since little control can be exercised by stakeholders and the general public on ongoing negotiations up until the final agreement is reached.
On the other hand, as some have pointed out, trilogues also need to be put in perspective.
First of all, in the case of the Parliament, most documents related to files undergoing trilogue negotiations are made available to the general public while these are taking place. These are, for instance, reports containing the Parliament’s general position on a dossier as well as the amendments put forward by different political groups. Similarly, the EP plenary sessions (during which all 753 MEPs come together as a chamber) and Committee meetings, during which the EP position is discussed, are streamed live and can be accessed at any moment.
Secondly, trilogue outcomes are always subject to further scrutiny and vote by the EP plenary (which has to approve any text with wide majorities) and the Council. Moreover, as said before, the final stage of the negotiation always foresees a vote by the EP plenary, by which undesirable outcomes can always be rejected. The text on which the plenary votes is made available to the public before the vote itself, allowing citizens, pressure groups and interest representatives to influence the final decision.
On the whole, it is important to acknowledge that trilogues are no longer the exception to the rule, but have become the standard instrument of decision-making in the EU today. As a consequence, acknowledging this reality comes with responsibilities for the Institutions to regulate this practice in a serious way. This could be done, as suggested by the Ombudsman, by disclosing trilogues’ agendas, dates and lists of participants.
This general reflection, however, should not lead to the conclusion that the use of trilogues is to be banned. Quite the contrary, one could say, increasing the efficiency of EU law-making seems more important than ever, in a time where challenges such as the Migration crisis and Climate Change necessitate quick reactions at EU level. It follows that the survival of important instruments such as trilogues can only be ensured by the provision of basic rules of transparency serving as a guarantee of democracy and transparency in our Union.