Category Archives: European Council

A more democratic EU? Stop government secrecy!

In UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s EU speech this week he talked of the need to increase the EU’s “democratic accountability”.

One little known fact is that the most secretive and undemocratic piece of the EU is actually ‘Council’, EU Governments (Member States) – including the UK – getting together to decide their view on EU laws.

Council is one of the two decision making bodies of the EU, see this page for a quick explanation, the other being the European Parliament – the European Commission only proposes legislation.

For example, look at this document on the Council’s web site, where the main content of the document is:


And this is not some obscure piece of legislation. This is the negotiations on a new law that would force European mining companies to disclose what they are paying governments around the world, part of a global campaign on transparency – see the “Publish What You Pay” campaign site for more details.

There are thousands of censored documents on the Council web site, many saying useful things like “one Member State said” “Several Member States said”. Governments around Europe are hiding what they are doing at EU level.

So, the electorate is not permitted to see what governments are up to. Sometimes complete documents – or rumours – leak out, but it is a closed, secretive process. These leaks probably also go more often to industry interests than to civil society ones.

Contrast this with the elected EU parliament, where you can see who tables which amendments, and where votes are open & often available in full (‘roll call votes’). This detailed information enables people like VoteWatch and environmental groups to monitor exactly what each MEP is up to. VoteWatch also tries to analyse government voting patterns, but its only data is the formal votes that happen at the end of a process, not the real debate on what governments will or won’t accept.

So is David Cameron’s ‘reform’ plan going to include openness for council?

Will the UK take a unilateral decision to open up all of its negotiation documents?

Let’s wait and see…

Interesting post on different approaches to foreign affairs between Commission and governments

The ‘Charlemagne’ blog from the Economist has an interesting post discussing what he learnt from his contacts as he wrote an article about the new EU representative for foreign affairs, who heads up the new External Action Service (EAS), and the issue of who should be in the driving seat, the Commission or EU governments:

One is the very deep cultural difference between the European Commission and the national governments, when it comes to foreign policy, or “external relations” in the Brussels jargon.

National diplomats tend to see the world, ultimately, in rather Hobbesian terms. Strip away the talk of co-operation and values, and at the end of the day they are paid to promote their countries’ national interests in a rough and at times wicked world.

The European Commission has a different culture. The commission has instruments that help it exercise soft power: it gives out money for projects and programmes, or makes proposals to ease visa rules for citizens of country X or Y. It signs trade deals, and reports on whether countries that want to join the EU are fit to do so.

These are all important things, but Kissinger it ain’t. In other words, the commission can only function in a rational world, and as long as a legitimate partner is sitting on the other side of the table, pen in hand, ready to sign an action plan, or agree to some new programme or partnership accord.

National diplomats, for all their smooth manners, have to be prepared to go a bit more off-road, if you know what I mean’

He also makes a second – quite controversial – suggestion:

‘A second big point kept coming up. I would put it to interviewees that I had heard anger from some national governments about, say, the way the European Parliament was flexing its muscles and trying to assert control over the new EAS.

Well what did they expect, the Lisbon Treaty gives them powers over the budget of the EAS, my interviewees would say. More than once, I heard the same despairing phrase, said of EU foreign ministers and heads of government: “the problem is, they signed the treaty without reading it”, or “they should have read the treaty, and worked out the consequences.”

I do not want to fuel the most outlandish Eurosceptic fantasies here: I am sure that such phrases have their share of hyperbole. Most European governments will have tried to work out if the Lisbon Treaty contained things that should worry them.

But there is something to the jibes though. I have no doubt that British ministers, for example, were probably briefed during the drafting of the EU constitution (the first version of the Lisbon Treaty), that it could cause problems to give more powers to the European Parliament. But they were so busy seeking opt-outs from things like immigration policy that they did not have time to focus on things like the powers of the parliament.

And the shorthand for that process is the phrase that several senior people used this week, when talking to me: “they should have read the treaty before they signed it.’

An elected EU President?

So, last week the new European Council President was selected, after lots of secret discussions between the EU member state governments, and with the European Parliament and Barrosso having their inputs too.

There has been a lot of criticism of the secretive nature of this process, with some suggestion (even from Eurosceptics it seems) that the president should have been subject to EU wide election.

Firstly, it is – unfortunately – normal for intergovernmental decision making to be pretty secretive, whether in the EU or elsewhere. The most open EU insitution is the Parliament, while the Council processes are probably the most secretive.

Each EU government is, of course, elected, and can argue that this is what ‘representative democracy’ is all about – “you elected us to run the country and represent the country at EU and international level”.

Imagine we did have an elected EU president – this person would immediately have one of the strongest democratic mandates in the world, elected by an electorate of around 500 million people. How would they relate to the 27 EU member states – would they view themselves as more representative of EU opinion? Would they therefore create a strong push towards a more federal EU?

A second issue is what would actually happen during the election process? Would the outcome be viewed as more democratically legitimate than the current process? Or  maybe it would be more like the Eurovision song contest – people voting for the candidate from their country and some friendly neighbours. For example, you could logically end up with a German president given that this is the largest EU country. Would this result be welcomed in other countries, or would it just create even more division? I can’t see the UK tabloids being very happy!

Understanding all the different European ‘Councils’

The blogger nosemonkey has posted a nice clear summary to try to clear up the confusion many people have between: The European Council, the Council of the European Union, the Council of Ministers and the Council of Europe:

It includes an explanation of why the new president of the European Council would be much more powerful if they were actually a president of the Council of the European Union (or of the Council of Ministers, which is the same thing…).

Here is his summary:

Council of Europe

Not an EU body; concerned with democracy and justice

Council of the European Union

At once the EU’s Cabinet and Upper House of the legislature; where the decisions are made

Council of Ministers

The same as the Council of the European Union

European Council

The heads of government of the EU member states; an EU body but not an EU institution; effectively just a formalised old-school international summit, like the G8 or G20