Monday

13th Jul 2020

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 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe 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.

Commission chief under fire for Croatia campaign video

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen recorded a video in support of Croatia's ruling party, which the EU executive said was in her "personal capacity" - and admits it was a "mistake" that this was not made clear.

Parliament vaping booths 'too confidential' to discuss

The European Parliament is refusing to disclose documents on an internal debate on whether to set up e-cigarette smoking booths at its premises in Strasbourg and Brussels, posing questions on how it handles transparency on relatively minor issues.

News in Brief

  1. Citizens' perception of judicial independence drops
  2. Irish finance minister voted in as eurogroup president
  3. Italy's League party opens office near old communist HQ
  4. 'Significant divergences' remain in Brexit talks
  5. Germany identifies 32,000 right-wing extremists
  6. WHO to hold probe of global Covid-19 response
  7. China accuses Australia of 'gross interference' on Hong Kong
  8. EU to let Croatia, Bulgaria take first step to join euro

Commission chief under fire for Croatia campaign video

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen recorded a video in support of Croatia's ruling party, which the EU executive said was in her "personal capacity" - and admits it was a "mistake" that this was not made clear.

Parliament vaping booths 'too confidential' to discuss

The European Parliament is refusing to disclose documents on an internal debate on whether to set up e-cigarette smoking booths at its premises in Strasbourg and Brussels, posing questions on how it handles transparency on relatively minor issues.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDANext generation Europe should be green and circular
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNEW REPORT: Eight in ten people are concerned about climate change
  3. UNESDAHow reducing sugar and calories in soft drinks makes the healthier choice the easy choice
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersGreen energy to power Nordic start after Covid-19
  5. European Sustainable Energy WeekThis year’s EU Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW) will be held digitally!
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic states are fighting to protect gender equality during corona crisis

Latest News

  1. EU 'in-person' summit plus key data privacy ruling This WEEK
  2. Let's have positive discrimination for EU stagiaires
  3. We need to do more for our small and medium-sized enterprises
  4. Romania's virus surge prompts queues and new worries
  5. Michel lays out compromise budget plan for summit
  6. Border pre-screening centres part of new EU migration pact
  7. EU 'failed to protect bees and pollinators', report finds
  8. MEPs give green light to road transport sector reform

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us