The lead MEP on a European Parliament transparency report has said that he was lobbied “all the time” during secret negotiations over EU law, and had better access to classified documents just because he is German. Sven Giegold exclusively told EurActiv he wouldn’t care if “trialogue” discussions were livestreamed and branded a European Commission push for better regulation an attack on parliamentary democracy.
Sven Giegold is rapporteur on the European Parliament’s draft opinion on transparency, accountability and integrity in the EU institutions. The German MEP [Greens], who was elected in 2009, sits on the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee and the Special Committee on Taxe Rulings. He spoke to EurActiv Deputy News Editor James Crisp. You can hear a shortened version of the interview, or read the transcript below.
What is it you want to change about trialogues?
I think that there is a problem of transparency and accountability, and that has to be changed. There’s also a problem of integrity. There’s a problem with transparency because there’s no minutes, because it is not clear when they take place, it is not clear who has participated.
There is also a lack of accountability, because it is not transparent about who has defended which position in the negotiations. Lastly, there is a problem with integrity. The documents that are meant to be secret are not secret. I’ve seen it very often that lobbyists have documents given to them through sources in the Parliament, or more often through the Council.
In financial services, you very often have very specific input into discussions from stakeholders, usually big business organisations, who have all the documents, even though they are not publicly available. In fact, they are only available to those who are very well networked.
You are talking about the infamous four column documents (negotiating papers showing the views of each institution in the trialogue).
Yes, but there are also non-papers. All sorts of things are used in trialogues, it is not just the four column documents – although they are critical. The Commission, Council and Parliament can request non-papers and if you know the contents of these non-papers, you can influence the position of different governments, of the Parliament and so on.
Is it fair to say that a trialogue is essentially just an ad hoc arrangement? This is a process that has just evolved over time with no basis in law.
This is true, but trialogues don’t weaken the Parliament. In the ordinary legislative procedure if we do not accept the Council position, we have to have an absolute majority in plenary. Very often this is very hard to achieve. I am sure it is easier for the Parliament to win certain battles within the trialogue structure than outside. Many things the Parliament has won was because of the trialogues – the Council knew we didn’t need an absolute majority in the plenary.
But isn’t there a risk that if you just have an individual rapporteur in the trialogues, that other voices in the Parliament are sidelined?
That’s never the case. The trialogues always include all members of the negotiating team, in which all groups are represented if they wish to be. The extreme right or the left don’t do much on trialogues, but most of the serious groups in the Parliament are represented.
But the extreme right, for example, is invited?
Yes, of course.
But the trialogue system doesn’t look good to the public does it? People disappearing into secret rooms to arrange a deal.
Yes, but that would change if minutes and meetings were made public. In the Council, all the meetings are like this, which totally annoys me. I always have to get illegal minutes of the meetings from Berlin. But members from other countries with less strong parliaments – and there are a lot of them – don’t have that access. In trialogue situations, I was often the best informed MEP simply because I am German.
An increasing number of deals on EU legislation are reached at first reading – shouldn’t these laws be debated in committees, in public?
I agree, but I believe there has to be a difference struck between the transparency issue, including during the process, and the trialogue itself. I don’t want to weaken the Parliament by doing away with trialogues. I think, in the eyes of the public, the Parliament is already weaker than the Council. But the problems of transparency, integrity and accountability need to be addressed. The results and the way they are reached have to be transparent.
That raises the question of when documents should be published. If they come out when everything has been agreed to, how can they be changed?
The documents should be published during the process. What we have is unacceptable because they are public, but only to some. I fully agree with that criticism, but if you make the trialogues transparent, the accountability and integrity problem is solved.
Is there any information that shouldn’t be published? Why shouldn’t trialogues be streamed live?
You can stream them. I wouldn’t care that much. I could imagine them being livestreamed. I wouldn’t have a problem with that.
Would you push for that in the draft opinion?
For me, the key question is that there are minutes which record who has defended what. If you want, you can also livestream them. I don’t care.
You’ve been in a lot of trialogues…
Certainly a 100.
Has there ever been a situation when you thought some information shouldn’t be made public?
Of course a negotiation situation that is public makes it more difficult for actors to move, and trialogues are a process in which actors move. If you are on camera, it makes it more difficult to move, and certainly to make the first step towards a deal.
On the other hand it has clear advantages for transparency. I wouldn’t push so much for the web streaming, because I am sure there is no chance of a majority for this. But I am sure in the end, negotiators would adapt to this method, and it will still work.
Has anyone tried to lobby you when you have been in a trialogue?
Oh yes. Of course, all the time. I’ve complained about this. Some of them had documents that even I hadn’t seen. In the Council there are also documents that the Parliament never gets officially. They explain which member states took which position. Sometimes the lobby has more than I do – and I am very annoyed about this. This is not typical just for trialogues, this applies to the whole legislative procedure.
The Parliament is a magnet for lobbyists, isn’t it?
Like the Council.
And the Commission..
Yes, there are lobbyists everywhere. The problem is not that there are lobbyists, but that there are some who have access to information that others don’t. It’s a violation of the equality principle.
Why don’t MEPs just take their own minutes of trialogues and publish them themselves? Or even live-tweet a trialogue?
I have sometimes tweeted from trialogues. I have done it if I was sure that colleagues wouldn’t see it as a violation of the rules. But I can promise you there were hundreds of moments when I would have loved to tweet! The problem is if you do this you are very soon out of the real room. Breaking this as a rule would mean you would not be taken seriously as a negotiator, you’d be seen as playing NGO. I am an elected representative and my voters expect that I make my voice effectively heard. If I push myself out of the rules, that’s wrong. This is why I try to change the rules as rapporteur.
The Commission’s proposed inter-institutional document on better regulation seems to provide an opportunity to reform trialogues…
The draft so far is a splendid attempt to weaken the Parliament. If you have to provide impact assessments for every MEP amendment, you introduce plenty of chances for lobbyists to change them. It would push the balance towards vested interests, and away from parliamentary democracy. What they are planning is a direct attack on the rights of parliamentary democracy. Lots of the Parliament’s achievements would not have happened if amendments were killed off in endless impact assessments.
The European Ombudsman is carrying out an investigation into the trialogues…
Yes, and I welcome that. I see it as support for what I am driving for in the Parliament.
How much support do you feel there is for reform of the trialogue system? There must be some MEPs who like things just the way they are.
I guess so, but I don’t want to judge a priori. It’s difficult to judge, because I am only on two committees.
The Parliament isn’t as transparent as it could be is it? There are meetings held on camera, when journalists are asked to leave. Should that be changed as well?
This is too general. There might be certain things that have to be on camera. Institutions cannot open everything to the public – not even EurActiv!
I’d argue that having a group of rapporteurs or presidents of a group go away on camera to talk amongst themselves is unnecessary. You use the EurActiv example – but we are not elected representatives of the public.
You can accept that there should be rules before and after for transparency, but you don’t have to be necessarily transparent in every step you take. If you had a web stream camera on a politican all the time, a lot of diplomacy would not happen. A balance has to be struck. I am not sure that each meeting that is held in the European Parliament should be fully public, I am not sure if that is possible. For instance, we get access to secret information from the banking supervisor, and if that information was made public, the markets would react immediately.
But there is no reason why the secret deliberations of the groups over the Commissioner hearings couldn’t have been public.
I found that totally silly. The Commissioner hearings should be fully public.
You’ve been active on the Luxleaks Committee, and I know you are passionate about transparency in TTIP. But can the European Parliament really go around demanding transparency, if it isn’t the best in class, or if it doesn’t improve its own transparency?
If you judge politics like this, there would be even less change than we have today. If you have to be best in class before you change anything, you weaken the possibilities for change. But I do agree that someone who makes such claims over transparency should act. If you demand more transparency on TTIP, as the Parliament has done, then we should be fully transparent on our deliberations. I fully agree with this.