Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Transparency in the Council of Ministers

Bit by bit, piece by piece, the Council of Ministers is opening its deliberations to the public. But goodness me, it's a painful process. The background, up to December 2005, is explained here, in an Information Note prepared by the Council secretariat (Word Doc). In December 2005, in one of the more unexpected outcomes of the UK Presidency, the Council adopted conclusions (pdf file) promising to stretch closer to the limits the existing possibilities of legislating in public, but without changing the existing rules of procedure. I reported on these developments in broadly positive terms for the young federalists' organisation, JEF, in March 2006, although they felt that they did not go far enough and represented a sham rather than true transparency. Now EUObserver again reports an initiative under the Austrian Presidency for further transparency, as part of the draft Conclusions for the June 2006 European Council meeting, which it has seen in advance of their publication.

One of the problems with all the documents about transparency and legislating in public in the Council of Ministers is that they themselves are wholly lacking in transparency. As far as the general public is concerned, if they care at all, the absence of a public legislature within the EU (apart from the European Parliament) is an obvious lacuna, which no amount of fine distinctions between initial discussions, subsequent policy debate and final deliberations and votes can correct. Furthermore, it is equally obvious to those who do manage to penetrate behind opaque language that most of the important discussions will continue to be held behind closed doors (e.g. in the highly sensitive justice and home affairs field which is not yet subject to co-decision between Council and Parliament).

In October 2004, by signing the Constitutional Treaty, the Member States accepted Article I-24(6) CT which provides that:

‘The Council shall meet in public when it deliberates and votes on a draft legislative act. To this end, each Council meeting shall be divided into two parts, dealing respectively with deliberations on Union legislative acts and non-legislative acts.’

Instituting greater transparency in Council decision-making is not illegitimate cherry-picking of the outcomes of the Constitutional Treaty, which undermines national democracy because it runs counter to the rejection of the CT by the French and Dutch voters in 2005. On the contrary, it is a fundamental imperative of legitimate government. Unless citizens can know and understand the public reasons exchanged by Member States in their deliberations, they can never fully understand the acts adopted, whether legislative or non-legislative. Knowing and understanding will not necessarily make citizens more content about what the EU is doing, or more accepting of the supranational level of governance generally, but it will at least mean that there is less scope for the type of ill-informed debate which seems to dominate most media outputs on the EU, its institutions and its policies and politics.


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11:23 am  

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