Sunday

25th Aug 2019

Interview

EU has 'zero incentive' to break open 'trilogue' deals

  • Protesters took to the streets last March in several EU cities, including Vienna, to call on MEPs to reject article 13 from the new copyright directive (Photo: Michael Gubi)

It does not happen often that EU directives attract so much public attention that it leads to protests on the streets.

Yet this is what happened in Berlin and other European cities last March, when protesters called on the European Parliament to reject the EU's copyright reform.

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

  • Alexander Hoppe in Brussels, in 2018 (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Specifically, they wanted MEPs to delete article 13 from the bill, because they feared it would lead to internet companies installing upload filters.

But the protest came "way too late" said German researcher Alexander Hoppe.

By March, negotiators from the EU institutions - European Parliament, European Commission, and Council of the EU (representing national governments) - had already agreed to a compromise deal.

They did so behind closed doors in the so-called trilogue process, which in recent years has become the default way of adopting legislation in the EU.

In most cases, the commission proposes bills, which then need approval by both parliament and council. Trilogues were introduced to prevent legislative files from endlessly going back and forth between parliament and council.

Hoppe spent the last three years doing a PhD on trilogues at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, where he spoke to EUobserver on Tuesday (13 August).

"I hardly remember any other file that has caused so much public upheaval as the copyright directive. There were actual protests. But it was simply too late. It happened after there was agreement in trilogues," said Hoppe.

"This trilogue process takes so much resources and time, and it's so difficult to find any compromise that work for the institutions, that once there is an agreement, the incentives for any institution to change something are zero," he said.

The impression that MEPs could have just deleted article 13 was wrong, he added, because if they had done so, that would have thrown the negotiations back to the starting point.

"This is a very important norm or principle that everybody follows: nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," said Hoppe.

He interviewed more than 40 people who had been involved in trilogue negotiations, for four different pieces of EU legislation.

"Not everybody agreed to talk. Some openly said: 'I don't want to talk about trilogues, that's too sensitive for me.' But it was relatively easy to set up the interviews - easier than I expected," he noted.

Mysterious trilogues

Trilogues are often criticised for being shrouded in mystery.

A key element is the so-called four column document, which is a table listing the views of the EU institutions per paragraph of the proposed directive or regulation - with the fourth reserved for possible compromise amendments or negotiations instructions.

In 2016, the Court of Justice of the EU ruled that these documents should be made public if citizens asked for them via an access to documents request.

But Hoppe acquired them through other means.

"From experience, it just takes a lot of time. Time that I did not necessarily want to invest in that," he said.

He managed to convince sources within the institutions to share the papers with them.

Interviewees actually told him that the informal ways of getting documents leaked seemed to work well.

"There is a very dense information network in Brussels," he said.

"If you are in Brussels ... if you want to follow what happens, there are ways of doing it," he added.

In fact, sometimes lobby organisations will have better information on bilateral discussions related to trilogues than some of the negotiators, he said.

"We even heard of cases that institutional actors got the information on what happened in bilateral talks via lobby groups or interest representation groups. In these cases, these lobby groups were better informed on what was going on than actors in the trilogue," he explained.

Waiting for the database

Of course, he said, there should be more transparency, and EU institutions should follow up on their 2016 promise to have a joint database with all trilogue-related documents.

"We need a central database for all the information on trilogues. Even we researchers struggle finding the information on single files," he said.

Spokespersons for the parliament and council told EUobserver on Tuesday that work on the central database, which would cover the whole legislative process, was ongoing. A commission spokeswoman confirmed this on Wednesday, after publication of this article.

A parliament spokeswoman said the three EU institutions have agreed on the content of what should be in the database.

"Discussions however still continue concerning the most suitable solutions for the technical implementation of the portal, on the institution or body responsible for the technical development, as well as on its governance," she said.

All spokespeople were unable to give an official starting date.

Although the joint database is still not online, Hoppe stressed that in the past 20 years, the EU has already opened up a lot.

"Yet the perception of the transparency problem has not changed. That [publishing documents] seems not to be the solution to what we call the transparency problem of the EU," he said.

He said national parliaments should also become more involved in following trilogue negotiations.

Personality matters

An important realisation to Hoppe was that the success of trilogue talks depended in part on the individual personalities of the negotiators.

If they managed to create an atmosphere of trust amongst themselves, they would seem more willing to compromise.

One of the case studies Hoppe investigated, was the proposal for a reformed posted workers directive.

"In these negotiations, at one point all the negotiators - except for one or two parliamentary actors who didn't play a big role - were female," said Hoppe.

"In more or less every interview, this came up. Everybody said it was helpful, nice for the atmosphere that the whole file was negotiated by women of roughly the same age group. There was no macho theatre. That seemed to have made a difference," he said.

Getting secret EU trilogue documents: a case study

On Thursday, the European Parliament will vote on a political deal on organic farming, following 19 months of behind-closed-doors negotiations. EUobserver here details a five-month odyssey to get access to the secret documents that led to the deal.

Interview

Academic to probe EU's secret law-making

A German PhD candidate has recently started conducting interviews about how the EU's behind-closed-doors 'trilogues' actually work. "Now the fun work starts," he says.

Secret EU law making takes over Brussels

The public was denied a second round of scrutiny on every EU law passed last year, figures obtained by this website show. Transparency campaigners are livid.

Investigation

US billionaires funding EU culture war

Conservative US billionaires, some with links to Trump, are paying anti-abortion lobbyists in Europe tens of millions of dollars to shape policy and law.

Investigation

The EU committee's great 'per diem' charade

Around 30 members of European Economic Social Committee, who live and work primarily in Brussels or nearby, have claimed €1.47m in a 'daily subsistence' allowance from European taxpayers to cover accommodation, food and local transport for meetings held in Brussels.

News in Brief

  1. Ocean Viking to disembark in Malta after ordeal
  2. Germany joins France in world outcry on Brazil fires
  3. British people lose faith in Brexit deal
  4. Brexit hardliners want further changes to EU deal
  5. German manufacturers confirm fear of recession
  6. Belgian socialists and liberals scrap over EU post
  7. Fall in EU migration leading to UK skills shortages
  8. Switzerland makes post-Brexit flight preparations

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. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  5. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  7. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  8. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  9. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  10. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North

Latest News

  1. Spain heading for yet another general election
  2. EU to discuss Brazil beef ban over Amazon fires
  3. 'Our house is burning,' Macron says on Amazon fires
  4. What happens when trafficking survivors get home
  5. EU states and Russia clash on truth of WW2 pact
  6. EU considers new rules on facial recognition
  7. EU to pledge Africa security funds at G7 summit
  8. Letter from the EESC on per diem article

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  3. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  4. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  7. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  12. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  2. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  3. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  5. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  6. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us