Trilogue negotiations – striking the right balance between transparency and efficiency

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A trilogue is just what it sounds like – a dialogue between three parties. In a European context the three parties in question are the European parliament, the European Commission and the Council. There are advantages to these trilogues; it’s a quicker decision process which can be used ad hoc with the three most important parties present. But the opposition is growing against the increased frequency, particularly because of lack of transparency that trilogues entail.

Bernd Dittmann from the European Economic and Social Committee employer’s group, Fredrick Federley, MEP (ALDE), Fergal O’Regan Head of unit at the European Ombudsman, and Assya Kavrakova, Director of European Citizen Action Service.
Foto: Leszek Jarosz
Bernd Dittmann from the European Economic and Social Committee employer’s group, Fredrick Federley, MEP (ALDE), Fergal O’Regan Head of unit at the European Ombudsman, and Assya Kavrakova, Director of European Citizen Action Service.

The Society for Politics and Enterprise (SPN), arranged seminar in the European Parliament on the rising frequency of trilogues, and the effect on transparency in the EU legislative process.  The discussion was hosted by SPN chair Fredrick Federley, MEP (ALDE), and the panel included Bernd Dittmann from the European Economic and Social Committee employer’s group, Fergal O’Regan Head of unit at the European Ombudsman, and Assya Kavrakova, Director of European Citizen Action Service.

The trialouges have become one of the most used decision making processes in the European Union, even though they exist outside the ordinary legislative process outlined in the Treaties. Trilogues are unregulated, as far as transparency is concerned, and that makes it difficult for outsiders to understand the decision process and hold the institutions accountable. Access to and information about the legislative process is strictly restricted for citizens, stakeholders and even for politicians outside the small core of trilogue negotiators. 

Transparency is one of the most important issues for the European Ombudsman, and the European Treaties emphasize the need for transparency in the decision-making process. 

- It’s a question of trust for the entire Union. Therefore, I would like to see a proactive transparency, especially at the later stages of the trilogues. Documents should be made public so that citizens can understand what their elected representatives have decided. We need a regular democratic procedure in which we can hold our decision makers accountable, said Fergal O’Regan.

But some things are improving, according to Bernd Dittmann. A review has been made and there is an ongoing debate on how to increase the transparency of the European insitutions. But there is still some ground to be covered, and we should all do our best to contribute to actual changes in procedure.

- We need quick results, which is near impossible without transparent decision making processes. Knowing how the process proceeds is a way to create trust and understanding for the EU machinery. For the same reason we need to know what mandate the decision makers have. National decisions are proceeded by an open political debate which provides clarity on the different viewpoints. There is no such process within the EU, and from this perspective that is troublesome.

The Economic and Social Committee’s report ”Investigation of informal trilogue negotiations since the Lisbon Treaty” was shared with participants at the event. The report is an ambitious overview of the development and current function of trialogues, and it contains quite a bit of criticism, particularly aimed at how the Council deals with transparency.

-This report upset me, Assya Kavrakova said. I was actually shocked by the content. Trilogues have spread to every possible policy area and it is unfathomable that 75 percent of all decisions are made behind closed doors, without any transparency. It is almost putting the entire union at risk. How can we demand democratic processes from new member countries when we as a union do not deliver the same? This certainly raises questions about the EUs legitimacy.

The one elected official in the panel, Fredrick Federley, verified that the trilogues complicate the work of the parliament as well. The members of parliament must rely on having the right network and contacts among the institutions to find out what is being discussed in the closed meetings.

So what can be done? How can we insure a decision process which is both effective and offer transparency and possibility of participation?

Bernd Dittmann’s answer is that to start making improvements in transparency in the Council. The Council secretariat should formulate a mandate and guidelines for transparency. The public must be allowed more access to the views and position of the different parties.

Kavrakova strongly agreed with the closing remark of Dittmann’s statement. The public needs to be given access to the processes, a sort of crowd funding of input for the decision makers. If that does not happen and the citizens are kept in the dark about “the rules of the game”, we risk increasing the mistrust of the European institutions and the EU itself.

Trust, establishment and transparency. The panel kept returning to these three keywords. At a time when EU sceptics keep getting louder and populism is growing, putting an end to the democratic deficit is more important than ever.

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