Monday, 16 July 2012

Council Transparency and VoteWatch

Namiot europejski na Rynku Głównym

BY CC DrabikPany.

Last week I was at the (re)launch of the VoteWatch website, which now covers Council votes as well as European Parliament votes. The Council votes on display are put together using information already publically available, though it’s currently not machine readable so the information needs to be collected manually.

A lot of the comment so far has focused on the rates of voting no in the Council (and that the UK and Germany seem to vote no the most, while France and Lithuania always voted with the majority). There are some debates over what this means (including that it’s more indicative of being able to play the political game beforehand if you can agree to the text when it comes to the vote), but I agree with Ronny that the rates of voting no are very small. In fact, only in 35% of cases where there is qualified majority voting and not unanimity, were there any dissenting votes (90% of votes are run on the QMV procedure - you can read the VoteWatch report here). So while I might be surprised that Ireland is in agreement with Italy a lot of the time, and in 100% agreement with Germany in the area of the environment, it’s only to a slight degree, since (near) unanimous agreement is the rule rather than the exception.

The panel discussion covered some interesting questions, such as the transparency of the political negotiations in the lead up to the vote and the transparency of amendments. It turns out that there are several shadow or practice votes in the Council groups working on the legislation, which generally see closer results than the final vote, and that amendments are proposed in many ways – formally submitted in writing, submitted in an informal style, and introduced orally, which may make it difficult to record in the same way the European Parliament records its amendments. (It was also noted that amendments are whittled down in number and merged in negotiation before being put to the vote. However, the Council is nowhere near this level of transparency yet). It could also be argued that with an array of groups working on legislation and several shadow votes, it would be difficult to keep track of everything and to judge its influence. After all, it seems to be a question of how negotiations should be led, and if these shadow votes are aids to negotiation, perhaps they should continue to be held in secret, especially since their significance individually is hard to measure.

A lot of the debate centred on whether the greater transparency of the Council votes via VoteWatch – and it is a great blow for transparency of the EU that the painstaking work of bringing these votes together in a readable way will be carried out finally – will affect how the Council operates. Will it withdraw more into the background? Will Member States change their voting habits (more likely to vote against in some cases, less likely to vote against where popular measures, such as lower roaming charges, are at stake?)?

The tension at the heart of the Council when it comes to transparency is diplomacy versus democracy. While it’s true that negotiations and diplomacy are a part of parliamentary life, when it comes to the Council it’s of a different class altogether. The justification against transparency is that there are key negotiations at stake and that the Member States should be free to pursue them. There should be some space for confidential negotiations, like in any legislative body, but there’s the rub: the Council is operating as a legislative body. Where the Council acts like an upper house of a parliament, we should expect those levels of transparency and clarity of procedure.

There won’t be a groundswell of public concern for this, and we should focus on pushing the boundaries of transparency under the current structure, but where the structure of the Council presents arguments that something should be kept secret for negotiation’s sake, we should be willing to ask: why should it be structured this way? Does it need to be secret at so many stages? Aren’t you legislating for us?

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