EXCLUSIVE / Three-way talks between the major European institutions to broker deals on EU law face being investigated over their lack of transparency by the bloc’s maladministration watchdog.
The European Ombudsman revealed in an exclusive interview with EURACTIV that so-called “trialogue” talks between the European Parliament, Council of Ministers and European Commission could be probed by her office.
Emily O’Reilly said there were concerns over the opacity of the decision-making process when deal on proposed EU legislation are hammered out.
Trialogues happen after the Parliament and Council have agreed their respective positions on a pending piece of legislation. The series of negotiations, which the Commission sits in on, work towards agreeing a final compromise text. Both Parliament and Council must agree an identical text before it becomes law.
“There are no minutes that come out afterwards. It’s never quite clear when the meetings are on or how the decision making is carried out,” O’Reilly told EURACTIV.
“When a bill goes in like this and comes out like that – what happens in-between?”
O’Reilly pointed to the recent example of roaming charges for mobile phone calls made abroad. The Parliament was pushing for mobile tariff reductions that were much higher than most EU governments wanted.
“There was a big issue about that,” she said, “the Council said no and the Parliament said yes and the Commission said yes”.
“I think there are questions raised around what the decision making process was there and how can the public see it,” she added.
Since taking over the job about 18 months ago, O’Reilly has adopted a strategy of launching a suite of “systemic” investigations at her own initiative.
It is a departure from previous Ombudsmen, who used own-intiative investigations more sparingly. But O’Reilly believes the targeted approach enables her to get the maximum results with her relatively small resources.
Last year, she looked into transparency in the EU-US trade deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), Commission expert advisory groups, revolving doors between the public and private sector, and the European Citizens Initiative.
“At the moment we are considering the next tranche and one of the things I do want to do is look at the Council. […] there has been a lot of talk about the trialogues,” she said
As well as acting on her own initiative, the Ombudsman responds to complaints about the institutions. After an investigation, she issues recommendations to the institution concerned in the interests of reaching a “friendly solution”. If the institution takes no notice of the probe, she can close it with a damning report.
O’Reilly said one of the advantages of the current trialogue system was that it was efficient.
“They get the work done. One doesn’t want to be responsible for suggesting a mechanism that would lengthen the process,” she said.
“But I still sense that there’s concern and a feeling that the transparency piece is missing.”
O’Reilly spoke to EURACTIV in a wide-ranging interview that also covered transparency in TTIP. EU and US negotiators meet in New York this week (From 20 April) for the latest round of talks over the deal.
Campaigners, who O’Reilly credited with transforming the debate over transparency in free trade agreements, have criticised the talks for their perceived secrecy.
The Ombudsman also insisted that the US’ desire to keep certain documents classified did not mean that the EU should not interrogate it over the reasons for that decision.
The European Ombudsman investigates maladministration in the European institutions, acting at her own initiative or after a complaint.
If you are a citizen of a member state of the EU or reside in a member state, you can make a complaint to the European Ombudsman. Businesses, associations or other bodies with a registered office in the Union may also complain to the Ombudsman.
Trialogues happen after the Parliament and the Council agree their respective positions on a pending piece of legislation. The series of negotiations, which the Commission sits in on, work towards agreeing a final text. Both Parliament and Council must agree an identical text before it becomes law.