Wednesday

24th Apr 2019

EU ombudsman urges Council to publish secret documents

  • Emily O'Reilly argues that the legislative procedure should be more transparent (Photo: European Parliament)

The EU ombudsman on Tuesday (13 February) called on the Council of EU, where national governments meet, to record member states' positions and to open up preparatory documents to the public.

The EU's public advocate argues that making governments negotiating in Brussels more accountable to their citizens will help curb the rise of populism in the EU.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

Following an investigation into the transparency practices of the council launched in March 2017, ombudsman Emily O'Reilly has found that the institution "undermines citizens' right to hold their elected representatives to account".

The ombudsman said that the council systematically failed to record the member states' positions during discussions on draft legislation.

She also found that the council "disproportionately" marks documents as 'LIMITE', not for circulation, or limited in French.

"The approach falls short of what is expected of the council in terms of legislative transparency," the ombudsman noted.

"For the most part, it is not possible at present for EU citizens to keep themselves informed, in real time, on legislative matters being dealt with by the council," the investigation has found.

The ombudsman called on the council to "systematically" record member states' positions in working groups and in EU ambassadors' meetings, and to make these documents "proactively available to the public in a timely manner".

According to its own internal rules, the council - for now - cannot proactively publish member states' positions, even though a European Court of Justice ruling in 2011 said it should not refuse access to countries' proposals or amendments.

O'Reilly is also asking for clear and publicly available criteria on the use of 'LIMITE' status, which the council now uses as a default option, something that a Dutch parliamentary attorney described as unlawful.

"The current widespread and arbitrary practice, of marking most preparatory documents in ongoing legislative procedures as 'LIMITE', constitutes a disproportionate restriction on citizens' right to the widest possible access to legislative documents," the ombudsman's investigation has found.

The ombudsman wants answers by May this year.

Blame Brussels – no more

The Council of the EU is one of the most opaque institutions in Brussels. It is one of the co-legislators alongside the European Parliament.

Before ministers formally take decisions, EU ambassadors and national experts in different working groups haggle over the proposed legislation.

EU ambassadors meet regularly, their discussions are not recorded, and member states' individual positions are concealed, so as to give them the widest possible room for manoeuvre out of the public's eye before the formal vote.

The exception to this is when a member states' political interest is to publicise a disagreement and put pressure on the opponents.

Governments sometimes also make use of the secrecy by distancing themselves from common decisions they have supported, thus shedding political responsibility.

Before a compromise reaches the ministers' tables, there is very little public oversight on how different interests and arguments shaped the draft legislation.

The blurred workings of the council expose the EU as an easy target for populists, who aim to reinforce the image of Brussels issuing "diktats" created by faceless bureaucrats that are out of touch with public opinion.

"In the past, this 'blame Brussels' phenomenon, which misrepresents the reality of how EU legislation is agreed, has raised concerns about the democratic legitimacy of the Union. This in turn helps to promote euroscepticism and anti-EU sentiment," O'Reilly's investigation states.

Opening up the council to the public would tie the countries' hands tighter, but might quell populists' arguments against the secretive EU and "help reduce citizens' alienation".

"It's almost impossible for citizens to follow the legislative discussions in the council between national government representatives. This 'behind-closed-doors' approach risks alienating citizens and feeding negative sentiment,"O'Reilly said in statement.

She added that making the institutions more transparent before the European elections in 2019 could send "an important signal" on being more accountable and open.

"If citizens do not know what decisions their governments are taking, and have taken, while shaping EU laws, the 'blame Brussels' culture will continue. EU citizens have a right to participate in the making of laws which affect them, but to do so, they need more openness from their governments in Brussels," O'Reilly said.

EU ombudsman asks Tusk for more transparency

Emily O'Reilly wants the European Council president to ask the council to join the transparency register, publish information on meetings with lobbyists and publish more notes on the EU leaders' work.

Ombudsman probes secret Council lawmaking

Emily O'Reilly has launched an inquiry into whether the EU Council, where member states are represented, allows sufficient public scrutiny of the drafting of laws.

MPs demand Council become more transparent

Three Dutch MPs, on behalf of 26 national parliamentary chambers across the EU, are demanding more transparency. 'The Eurogroup is the most opaque of them all,' complained Dutch MP Omtzigt.

News in Brief

  1. Putin offers Russian citizenship to Ukraine regions
  2. Romania adopts new rules weakening corruption fight
  3. Sturgeon pledges 2nd Scottish independence referendum
  4. Political deadlock looms at Sunday's Spanish election
  5. Le Pen in Copenhagen for talks with new key ally
  6. Trump to meet May and Macron on Europe visit in June
  7. Johnson's sister to run in EU elections on new list
  8. Weber pledges to 'block' Nord Stream 2 as president

Magazine

The changing of the guards in the EU in 2019

The four most powerful EU institutions - Commission, Parliament, Council and Central Bank will all have new leaders in the coming ten months. Here is an overview.

Magazine

Explained: What is the European Parliament?

While domestic political parties often use the European Parliament as a dumping ground for unwanted politicians - and a majority of citizens don't bother to vote - the parliament, over the years, has become a dominant force in the EU.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  2. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  3. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  4. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  9. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  10. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan

Latest News

  1. Details of EU Brexit talks with Blair and Soros kept secret
  2. Weber vows to block Nord Stream 2 amid 'sue' threat
  3. 'Next Juncker' must fix EU's corporate power problem
  4. EU want Facebook pan-EU advert fix for May elections
  5. Ukraine comic-president invited to EU capitals
  6. Trump's Israel plan to 'test' EU resolve
  7. Romania drafts EU code on NGO migrant rescues
  8. Bulgaria, Hungary, and Malta shamed on press unfreedom

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  6. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  7. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  8. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  9. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  11. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  12. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us