Two recently published reports, one by the European Parliament Vice-Presidents Responsible for Conciliation and the other by the European Parliamentary Research Service, offer insight into the functionality of the post-Lisbon European Union decision-making process.
The report by the Vice-Presidents Responsible for Conciliation, the Activity Report on Codecision and Conciliation for the 7th Parliamentary Term, reveals that the heightened role of the codecision procedure appears to have increased MEPs influence in the law-making process. Codecision, which became the “ordinary legislative procedure” after the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon, requires the equal involvement of the directly elected MEPs and the appointed Council of Ministers to craft policy proposed by the Commission. As opposed to the consultation or consent procedures of the past, codecision establishes EP as a co-legislator (see interactive map for further detail about this procedure). There are still several policy areas, generally Common Foreign and Security Policy and Common Security and Defense Policy, in which EP’s powers are still extremely limited, but the Lisbon Treaty increased the institution’s authority significantly. Demonstratively, the EP caseload has increased 7.5% from 454 to 488 since 2009.
Because codecision gives more power to the directly elected EP it sounds like a more democratic procedure. Unfortunately, the reality is not this simple. Establishing consensus between three politically and nationally diverse institutions, Commission, Parliament and Council would be time consuming and cumbersome if not for the existence of the secret European legislative tool: the trialogue. In a private conference room somewhere in Brussels, members from each of the three decision-making bodies gather to horse-trade and hash-out policy details. There are no minutes and no records. The meetings are secret. The Activity Report calculated that MEPs participated in 1,557 trialogue meetings in the previous term. The existence of this “secret” meeting tool is contentious. On the one hand, holding these meetings allows for the policy-making process to conclude more quickly. Rather than proceed to the time-consuming second or third policy reading, 85% of policies in the previous Parliamentary term were adopted during the first stage (see page 43 of the activity report). The average length of time to pass a bill through the complete legislative process, from first reading to adoption, has dropped from 21 months during the 2004-2009 session to 19 months during 2009-2014 (see page 10 of the activity report). On the other hand, such secrecy calls into question the transparency and equality of European decision-making. Transparency is challenged by the lack of public access to the conversations had and deals made during these decisive policy-making meetings. Equality is challenged by the apparent power politics exercised behind closed doors. According to a statement in a report by the EU Observer, the Commission can wield unchecked power in these closed-door negotiations. If unsatisfied with the direction of the negotiations, Commissioners can threaten to withdraw legislation proposals or request unanimity voting in the Council (see article in EU Observer).
While the Activity Report focuses its analysis on the legislative acts of the Commission, the Council and Parliament, the second recent report examines the actions of the European Council. The newly established EP think tank, the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS), released an extensive report that examines the extent to which the European Council has followed-through with its various policy commitments. Since Lisbon, the European Council and its president have been tasked with setting the course for the European Union; together they craft the priorities and political directions for the Union. To what extent have they accomplished these normative goals? EPRS’s European Council Conclusions: A Rolling Check-List of Commitments to Date offers eighty pages of color-coded and user-friendly information to help Parliament members – practicing their oversight authority – and EU citizens alike answer that crucial question.
Causality cannot be assigned to the Lisbon Treaty but there is clearly a tight correlation between the policy-making changes introduced by the Treaty in 2009 and the policy-making procedural changes experienced in the course of 2009-2014. Institutions, like people, are adaptive; they adjust to their environment. The Lisbon Treaty of 2009 altered the political and institutional environment to which the EU institutions were accustomed. As these institutions adapt to the recent changes it will be the role of citizens, civil society organizations and media to hold the government accountable to core EU values.