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29th Mar 2020

Interview

Law expert: direct EU powers have become too complicated

  • Protest against the renewal of glyphosate in Brussels on Wednesday. (Photo: Felix Kindermann / Campact)

Around one hundred protesters gathered outside the European Commission's Berlaymont building on Wednesday (19 July) to call on the EU not to renew the license for glyphosate, a controversial weed-killer.

Although the European Chemicals Agency and the European Food Safety Authority concluded that there is not enough evidence to say the weed-killer can cause cancer, there are many on the left side of the political spectrum who are not reassured.

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The demonstration also showed that the method chosen for the license renewal, the comitology process, is not used only for technocratic decisions, but can be highly political.

The comitology process is not well-known outside of Brussels, but it is the way the EU adopts most legal acts. It involves a committee of member state experts or representatives, who meet outside the public limelight.

Member states have not been able to agree on a regular renewal for the glyphosate license, so the commission has proposed a renewal of ten years.

The new proposal will be discussed on Thursday at the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed. A vote is expected for this autumn, according to commission spokeswoman Anca Paduraru.

The EU commission wants to prevent having to take the flak for renewing glyphosate - something it has to do when member states are deadlocked on comitology decisions.

In those cases, which mostly have to do with the approval of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the commission sees itself forced to approve the GMO, but without the backing of member states.

The commission now wants to change the comitology rules, no longer allowing member states to abstain.

“One has to have the courage to hear yes or no, on issues that affect citizens' health and on issues that are of major political importance,” EU commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said on Tuesday.

Not feasible

But Ellen Vos, professor of European Union Law at the Maastricht University, thought the commission's proposal, tabled last February, is too narrow.

“I do not expect the commission's proposal on comitology is feasible,” she told EUobserver in an interview.

“The commission's proposal is a kind of patch-up, when what you really need is a broad reform of comitology, which maybe gives the European Parliament a larger role as well.”

Vos said the comitology process was “born out of necessity” in the 1960s, in the early years of the European Economic Community.

The Council of the EU, which represents member state governments, decided to delegate powers to the commission.

“Ministers did not want to convene for all sorts of ad hoc decisions on, for example, milk prices,” said Vos.

“However, they also did not want to give the commission a carte blanche. The commission was given the authority to take decisions, but only after it consulted a committee of representatives of member states.”

That system worked fairly well, according to Vos, but then it was overhauled with the adoption of the Lisbon treaty, which entered into force in 2009.

Simplification gone complicated

The Lisbon treaty introduced a division between implementing acts and delegated acts.

Implementing acts involve a committee of member state government representatives, which take the decision, with no involvement from the EU parliament.

Delegated acts are adopted by the commission, after taking advice from a committee of member state experts. The latter can be vetoed by the EU parliament.

“The irony is that the idea behind the changes adopted in the Lisbon treaty, was to simplify things,” said Vos.

“However, the situation has become more complicated. I have never really welcomed this development and think comitology should be simplified.”

During negotiations on general regulations or directives, which are adopted by parliament and council, a contentious issue is often if detailed rules should be adopted by means of implementing act or delegated act.

“There is a lot of case law emerging about what the difference is between a delegated act and an implementing act,” said Vos.

Little action on the deliberative front

The commission's proposal from February deals with implementing acts.

It wants to make sure that "on important cases of major political importance, member states cannot, by abstaining, relinquish their responsibilities", said spokesman Schinas on Tuesday.

But the proposal needs approval from the council and parliament.

Over five months after its publication, the plan has seen little action in both EU institutions.

It has not been debated yet in the council. Estonia, which holds the rotating six-month council presidency, is "currently reflecting on how to take it forward”, according to spokeswoman Annikky Lamp in a written comment.

If Estonia had expected the council to be able to adopt a common position on the matter during its presidency, it is likely she would have mentioned that.

Meanwhile, in the parliament, Hungarian centre-right MEP Jozsef Szajer, rapporteur for the file, did not respond to a request for comment. His assistant told EUobserver to ask again in September.

“There is no timeline yet on the comitology dossier,” said Szajer's assistant in a written statement.

Another parliament source said that “normally”, five months after the publication of a legislative file, a timeline would have been produced.

To Vos, it is important that comitology is made simpler and more transparent, but that the member states remain involved.

“I still believe in comitology. Bringing representatives of member states together, people from ministries who work on certain files on a daily basis, is a good thing," she said.

The professor adds: "I also think it is very good if the commission is required to take member states' positions into account and that the commission cannot proceed with European integration on its own.”

This article was updated on Thursday 20 July at 10:53, to add comments from the European Parliament

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