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20th Sep 2019

Ombudsman criticises EU council opaqueness

  • Nikoforos Diamandouros - "The intermediate stages of the debates are the more delicate ones" (Photo: European Commission)

The European ombudsman has said that the EU Council, the member states' decision-making body, still has a long way to go to open all of its meetings to the public, with ministers still holding their "delicate" discussions behind closed doors.

In an interview with EUobserver, the EU's ombudsman Nikoforos Diamandouros said that "it is obvious that more steps remain to be taken" by the council, despite a move towards more openness in December.

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EU member states announced on 21 December to immediately hold more discussions and votes on EU legislation, under the so-called co-decision procedure where the European Parliament also has a full say, in public.

But the ombudsman, the European citizens' watchdog against maladministration in Brussels institutions, said the council had "only partially" responded to his demand for full transparency of its lawmaking work.

"The [December] decision is limited to the council's first deliberations after the European Commission has presented its proposal and the final vote. The debates in between are still closed to the public," the ombudsman stated.

"The intermediate stages of the debates are the more delicate ones, where decisions are hammered out and negotiations take place," he indicated, adding "This is something that I believe citizens wish to know about."

Mr Diamandouros also pointed to the fact that December's decision does not cover policy areas which fall outside the co-decision procedure.

"This means that substantive issues, including certain issues relating to justice and home affairs legislation are not affected by the move," he said.

Parliament persuasion powers

The ombudsman in October published a report calling on the council to review its refusal to meet publicly "whenever it is acting in its legislative capacity" and to change its current rules of procedure.

The December move did not change the council's rules of procedure, but seeks to improve openness within the current rules framework.

The ombudsman report followed a complaint to the ombudsman submitted by the German MEP Elmar Brok, who argued that council decisions must be taken as openly as possible.

The European Parliament's petitions committee will on Wednesday (25 January), discuss Mr Diamandouros' report, with the ombudsman saying "I hope the parliament will take charge of the issue and use its powers of persuasion on the council."

But the European Parliament, usually loudly critical about the secretive talks in the council, showed little support for the idea in December.

A declaration calling for public meetings - put forward by British MEPs from five different political groups - was not signed by enough deputies to see the light of day.

20 percent more openness

A council official admitted that December's council decision is not a major move, but that it should be seen as part of a "dynamic process," which is to be assessed this year under the Austrian and Finnish EU presidencies.

The council estimates that the amount of open meetings "could increase by 20 percent" because of the more far-reaching wording in the December text than in the rules of procedure.

The official highlighted that the December text introduces the idea that EU ambassadors may still decide, before each ministers' meeting, to make intermediate discussions on a legislative proposal public as well, "where appropriate."

But the ombudsman remarked "The extent of the benefit will depend on how the council will interpret the words 'where appropriate.'"

Member states when signing the EU constitution in 2004 agreed to follow the line of the ombudsman and provide full legislative openness of ministers' meetings, which would have meant changing the current council rules of procedure.

But the consensus that existed at that time, seems to have evaporated, with one insider noting "If the council is that serious about transparency, why didn't they just agree to open all their meetings in the December decision?"

MEPs renew call for greater EU transparency

The European Parliament has called on the council of ministers, the union's main law-making body, to open its doors to the public and show how national governments negotiate at the European level.

Defending the 'European way of life' name splits MEPs

European People's Party group leader Manfred Weber defended Ursula von der Leyen's decision to rename a commission portfolio, partly dealing with migration, "protecting the European way of life". He said it means rescuing people in the Mediterranean.

Hungary claims EU 'witch-hunt' over rule of law hearing

Hungary was quizzed by EU ministers over its domestic crackdown on media, judges, academia and NGOs. Hungary's minister responded by saying the country had defended "the European way of life" for centuries, and it should be respected.

EU divided on how to protect rule of law

Poland and Hungary have argued that rule of law is purely a domestic matter and the EU should respect legal traditions, but Dutch foreign minister warned backsliding was a worry for all.

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