Commission fluffs lines on decision-making reform

Juncker wants to find a "new identity" for the EU by the end of this year. [360b/Shutterstock]

The European Commission has revealed its long-awaited reform of the so-called comitology decision-making process. But it has already been criticised for not being ambitious enough and concerns have been raised about whether the proposal stands any chance of being approved.

The EU executive yesterday (14 February) announced a reform of its comitology process, which is used, among other things, to authorise products and adopt acts that implement EU law.

Currently, a committee composed of representatives from each member state votes on a Commission draft proposal. If there is a qualified majority either way, the executive is bound to adhere to the result, be it in favour or against.

But if there is no qualified majority and a ‘no opinion’ verdict is reached, the Commission is obligated, in certain policy areas such as GMO authorisations, to refer the draft to an appeal committee. If the result doesn’t change, then the result is left up to the executive.

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Despite an overwhelming number of drafts resulting in positive opinions (98% according to Commission figures) there have been high-profile sensitive cases where the final decision has fallen upon the Commission. In 2015 and 2016, it was forced to adopt 17 acts in this way.

The process has often been accused of allowing politically toxic issues to be palmed off on Brussels and of contributing to an alleged democratic deficit in the way decisions are made without the backing of the member states.

During his 2016 State of the Union speech, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said, “It is not right that when EU countries cannot decide among themselves whether or not to ban the use of glyphosate in herbicides, the Commission is forced by Parliament and Council to take a decision. So we will change those rules.”

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Today’s reforms include changing the voting rules of the appeal committee so that only votes in favour or against are taken into account, meaning the Commission would not be forced to implement a decision that is not backed politically. It is also intended to cut down on abstentions.

It also includes adding a second appeal option at ministerial level and for votes to be made public. The executive would also be empowered to request an opinion from the Council of Ministers if the appeal committee is still unable to come to a decision.

But a number of the reform’s details have already been criticised. The second round of appeal, for example, would be chaired by a representative of the Commission or even a Commissioner. In addition, the last-gasp option of asking the Council for an opinion would be non-binding.

Greens/EFA transparency spokesman MEP Benedek Jávor complained that “they are merely tinkering with a system that needs to be completely overhauled. The decision-making process must be made more accountable and much more transparent.”

Top lobbyists split over mandatory transparency registers

The many different transparency requirements across the EU are a minefield for lobbyists and lawmakers alike. Mandatory and voluntary systems both have their own advantages, but neither has been able to solve the industry’s image problem.

More pressing is the matter of what happens next. Changes to the Comitology Regulation will have to be decided jointly by the European Parliament and the Council. But given the nature of the reforms, it is doubtful whether they will be approved.

The reform’s proposal to name and shame member states that vote one way or another may be admirable on the face of things, as it in theory increases transparency. But it is difficult to imagine those same member states agreeing to it.

Daniel Guéguen, head of strategy and lobbying at PACT European Affairs, told Euractiv.com that the Commission’s proposal, specifically its idea of adding a second appeal committee and requesting a non-binding Council opinion, is “ridiculous”.

On whether the reforms will even see the light of the day, he tweeted that “For member states, it’s like turkeys voting for Christmas!”

The process of comitology already underwent severe changes when the Lisbon Treaty was signed. Commission involvement was increased and so-called trilogues, attended by representatives of the three main institutions, have been used more and more. The lack of transparency of the latter has been routinely called into question.

The comitology reform is a part of the Commission’s Work Programme, which also includes a number of other initiatives, including a number of REFIT strategies and the pillar of social rights.