The 'comitology' procedure, which has long stood accused of being too opaque and complex (EurActiv 13/05/10), involves powerful committees of national experts who pass implementing acts accompanying EU legislation, based on a Commission proposal (see 'Background').
Decisions on milk quotas or on approving chemical substances, for example, are all routinely taken via comitology.
The fast-track procedure's main advantage is that it is much faster than the normal legislative machinery. But the current system bypasses the European Parliament on decisions that sometimes carry high significance. The influence of member states, especially small ones, is also disproportionately high.
The Lisbon Treaty, adopted in December 2009, reformed the comitology procedure by increasing the Parliament and Commission's power within the system.
Under the previous system, national capitals were able to block a Commission proposal by a simple majority. The new procedure enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty instead only allows member states to stop a Commission decision by qualified majority.
After nine months of complex negotiations, MEPs voting at their Strasbourg plenary yesterday backed an agreement – by 567 votes in favour and four against amid 18 abstentions – reached between the Commission and EU member states on a regulation governing these 'implementing powers', according to the terms of Lisbon.
"The days of the current 'comitology' system – both an indispensable tool for interest groups and a nightmare for European studies students – are numbered," said the Belgian EU Presidency following yesterday's vote.
The new mechanism had faced resistance from a group of countries led by Germany and the United Kingdom, which feared that the system would reduce their ability to influence key areas like trade policy (EurActiv 05/11/10).
Indeed, under the new rules only a qualified majority vote in a comitology committee against a draft implementing act can prevent the Commission from adopting it.
Smaller member states and free-trade advocates like the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden had also been reluctant to see the EU executive gain influence over trade policy.
Nevertheless, the EU executive yesterday insisted that it "intends to continue to work in full partnership with member states".
Yesterday's agreement brings trade under the umbrella of the new comitology procedure, which the Commission says will increase the transparency and effectiveness of policy implementation in this area.
Most trade measures, including anti-dumping and "countervailing definitive measures," will be subject to the new standard comitology rules, which the EU executive says "will help to avoid the politicisation of the process, leave less room for lobbying by any party or by third countries, and ensure a more robust trade defence policy".
Until now, anti-dumping duties – which are levied on goods ranging from US biodiesel to Chinese shoes – have been decided in comitology committees made up of national experts.
Each member had one vote, regardless of their country's size or economic weight, and proposals for duties needed the support of a simple majority. Countries' votes will now be weighted according to their size, and only opposition by countries which together have a majority of weighted votes will be able to block proposals to impose duties.
But other sensitive aspects of trade policy will remain under national control. The Commission will still need a positive opinion from the comitology committee to adopt implementing acts related to "definitive multilateral trade safeguard measures," an exception to the rules that the EU executive "regrets".
Until now, all trade measures have been submitted to so-called "special procedures" in which the Council had the last word.
New system 'better guards member states from lobbying'
The EU has never been more open to international trade and intensively negotiates bilateral agreements with third countries. "These countries increasingly lobby member states or take action in the field of investments or exports in order to influence voting behaviour on trade defence measures, such as anti-dumping or anti-subsidy measures," according to the Belgian EU Presidency.
The new system of implementing acts "better guards member states from such lobbying" because they will vote on the basis of qualified rather than simple majority, reducing their vulnerability to pressure from third countries on trade defence, the Presidency argued.
The Commission, meanwhile, said the new rules provide "a very sound basis for the correct implementation of EU law" and represent a "welcome improvement for transparent and efficient decision-making".
The new system will enter into force on 1 March 2011 and automatically replaces the existing process. It will be reviewed after five years.