UK, Germany resist attempted EU power grab on trade

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A European Commission proposal to reduce member states' influence on the EU's daily decision-making is facing resistance from a group of countries led by Germany and the UK, who are insisting on keeping a say on trade policy.

EU diplomats are meeting in Brussels today (5 November) to discuss a Commission proposal to review the so-called 'comitology' procedure, in line with the Lisbon Treaty.

The fast-track procedure, which stands accused of being too opaque and complex, involves powerful committees of national experts who pass implementing acts accompanying EU legislation, based on a Commission proposal.

Decisions on milk quotas or on approving chemical substances, for example, are all routinely taken via comitology.

The procedure's main advantage is that it is much faster than the normal legislative machinery. But it 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 last year, reformed the comitology procedure by increasing the Commission and the Parliament's say in 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 foresees instead that member states will only be able to stop a Commission decision with a qualified majority.


However, the reform has been stalling for months over trade issues. A coalition led by Germany, the UK and Scandinavian countries has been lobbying hard to remove trade policy from the comitology review.

If the Commission were to get its way, these countries argue, Brussels would gain disproportionate powers on issues ranging from trade defence instruments or anti-dumping measures against foreign imports.

So far, EU countries have played a key role in deciding these measures via the comitology procedure, with behind-the-scenes negotiations on whether to prolong duties on shoes imported from China or Vietnam, for example.

The consequence is that "third countries are increasingly lobbying member states to avoid the imposition of duties," wrote EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht in a letter addressed to EU diplomats at the end of September.

The entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty "provides a one-off opportunity to deal with this problem," he adds, proposing that "trade policy, including trade defence, be fully integrated into the normal comitology framework".

But the group of northern countries has blocked the reform, fearing that it will hand key powers to Brussels. The most outspoken critics of the reform are countries where companies have tended to outsource production abroad.

Belgian compromise deal

After months of deadlock, the Belgian EU Presidency came out with a compromise proposal last week.

The document, seen by EURACTIV, substantially waters down the Commission's proposed review, in compliance with Lisbon Treaty provisions.

According to the compromise, member states will still be able to block proposed anti-dumping and other trade measures by simple majority. In such cases, "the Commission shall conduct consultations with the member states" and propose new draft measures for approval by committees of national experts. Once the new draft is out, they can only block it by qualified majority.

In addition, "for a period of one year after the entry into force of this regulation the appeal committee shall deliver its opinion on definitive draft anti-dumping or countervailing measures by a simple majority of its component members," reads Belgium's proposed compromise.

Safeguard measures will also be subject to "a different majority," which could imply a permanent return to simple majority voting.

The Lisbon Treaty is instead clear in saying that the new system "shall confer implementing powers on the Commission" without any further negotiation, except in case of a "duly-justified exception," which has not yet emerged as far as trade is concerned.

The system proposed by the Belgians also resembles proposals made on trade defence instruments at the end of 2006 by former EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, which were dropped due to lack of sufficient support.

"As regards the issue of simple majority voting on implementing measures related to trade defence mechanisms, the International Trade Committee approves the Commission’s proposal for qualified majority voting in all cases,"said Portuguese MEP Vital Moreira (Socialists & Democrats), chairman of the European Parliament's committee on trade, in a public hearing at the end of October.

Daniel Guéguen, a veteran EU lobbyist and author of a book called 'Comitology: Hijacking European power?', holds a different opinion on the reform of comitology. "The system was already complex but now is a hundred times more complex," he told EURACTIV, referring to the comitology review. He warned that the reform would give excessive decision-making power to the Commission.

His views are echoed by Vicky Marissen, a lecturer on EU decision-making at the European Training Institute (ETI). "The reform will put the Parliament on the same footing with the Council, but it will give disproportionate power to the Commission," she told EURACTIV.

Decisions on implementing parts of EU legislation are often taken behind closed doors by European Commission officials assisted by national experts, who give their opinion on proposed measures.

They meet in hundreds of specialised committees under a procedure referred to as 'comitology'.

There are around 300 committees dealing with all kinds of legislation, ranging from agriculture policy to industry. Examples of decisions taken by this procedure include the authorisation of chemical products or the imposition of production quotas for certain agricultural sectors.

The Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force in December last year, replaces the old comitology with a new system of 'delegated acts', placing the European Parliament on an equal footing with the Council in making those decisions.

Under Lisbon, the Commission outlines the technical requirements of EU law, provided that they do not change 'core' legislation decided by the Parliament and member states. 

In line with what is written in Articles 290 and 291 of the Treaty, the Commission proposed in March to review the system but negotiations have been stalling for months, due in particular to controversy over trade policy.

  • 22 Nov. 2010: Vote on the Commission’s proposal for reviewing comitology by European Parliament’s committee on legal affairs in Strasbourg.

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