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European Parliament calls on Council to become more transparent

On 17 January 2019 the European Parliament adopted a resolution demanding the Council of the European Union (Council) to become more democratic, transparent and accountable to the European public. The resolution, that was adopted with a big majority (479 for and 18 against), calls attention to the fact that there are “two components of the European legislature”. On the one hand there is the European Parliament, which is the “institution directly representing the citizens”, and on the other hand there is the Council of the European Union “representing the Member States”.

The resolution “demands that the Council as one of the two components of the European legislature, align its working methods with the standards of a parliamentary and participatory democracy as required under the Treaties, rather than acting like a diplomatic forum, which is not its intended function.”

The Council should be an open parliamentary body

The resolution refers to an inquiry made by the European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly from 2017-2018, which strongly criticizes the lack of transparency in the discussions of the national governments representatives.

European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly.  © European Union

If the Council doesn’t open up then “the ‘blame Brussels’ culture will continue”, Ms O’Reilly points out in her inquiry. In a speech on Friday January 18th, Ms O’Reilly commented on the adopted resolution that “it would be unthinkable at national level for ministers not to tell citizens their positions on national legislation, however this is essentially what happens when the same ministers meet to decide on EU legislation.”

The issue of transparency in the EU in general and in the Council in particular is often debated. Recently there was a report published on behalf of the European Parliament discussing the parliamentary nature of the Council. The report with the title “The Council of the EU: from the Congress of Ambassadors to a genuine Parliamentary Chamber?” can be found here .

Furthermore, as raised by Democracy International among others, on 31 January 2019 there will be another transparency vote in the European Parliament on a proposed amendment to the Parliament’s Rules of Procedure. If passed the amendment will require MEPs in special positions to make their meetings with lobbyists public. Due especially to the current lack of transparency in the Council the blame of a democratic deficit in the EU often unjustly falls on the European Parliament and its elected representatives rather than on the member states governments who are primarily responsible for holding back democratic development in the EU.

The Council debates behind closed doors

In a speech in the European Parliament on 17 January 2019, MEP Jo Leinen argues that this very body is actually one of the most open parliaments in the world, allowing the citizens to follow all debates through web streaming. In the Council, on the other hand, the debates of the ministers of the Member States, are held in secret “behind closed doors”. How is the European Union to become a role model for democratic governance, within and outside of the union, if one of its legislative chambers operates with such secrecy?, Mr Leinen argued.

Member of European Parliament, Jo Leinen. Image from Mr Leinen’s Facebook page.

Towards a World Parliament 

In the book A World Parliament: Governance and Democracy in the 21st Century, the authors Jo Leinen and Andreas Bummel make the point that the elected parliament is at the core of democratic governance. Just as the European Parliament is the watchdog for democratic development within the European Union, a democratic World Parliament would be the key to a more democratic world order. Important intergovernmental negotiations, for instance, are also often held behind closed doors and more transparency is needed.

A first pragmatic step could be taken through the establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA). A UNPA would complement the existing international institutions that represent national governments, and would for the first time allow for citizens representation and formal participation of parliamentarians in the United Nations and in global decision making processes. In July 2018 the European Parliament adopted a resolution recommending the Council of the European Union to take steps towards the creation of a UNPA. The question remains if the national governments of Europe are willing to take the lead for democracy in the 21st Century.

Image: A plenary vote of the European Parliament on 15 January 2019, © European Union 2019 – Source: EP

Petter Ölmunger
Petter is chair of Democracy Without Borders Sweden