“Despite speeding up the legislative process, trilogues allow the Council to negotiate directly with majority party leaders in the European Parliament at the expense of committees and minority parties”.
Dr Raya Kardasheva is a Lecturer in European Politics at King’s College London
The establishment of the co-decision procedure in the EU legislative system led to an increasing workload, the addition of multiple policy issues and the inclusion of new political players. Since the mid-1990s the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers have resorted to the use of trilogues in the search for compromise and have therefore moved away from the formal conciliation procedure. Trilogues are these informal meetings, convened between a select number of representatives from the Council, the EP and the Commission. They can take place at any time of the decision-making process, often even before first reading. Informal compromises are then presented in a take-it-or-leave-it form before the EP plenary and usually go through without an amendment. Why do EU legislators keep up with this practice when citizens and the media require more transparency and accountability from EU institutions?
Trilogues have become increasingly attractive because of the flexibility they add to EU lawmaking. While they reduce uncertainty about the policy preferences of each institution, informal trilogues are more than information gathering procedures. They restrain the ability of individual legislators to deliberate and to propose amendments to salient legislation. Trilogues allow the Council to negotiate directly with majority party leaders at the expense of committees and minority parties. Member States often choose to negotiate with ‘those with the numbers’ in the European Parliament thus bypassing rapporteurs and committee members. This in effect strengthens the role of majority party leaders in the policy-making process. There is an obvious tradeoff between transparency and efficiency of EU law-making. Would EU citizens prefer a sluggish and rigid decision-making system that takes years to do its job properly?
An in-depth look at the publicly available documents from the Council and the EP on EU legislation passed between 1999 and 2007 reveals that around 40% of all EU proposals went through a trilogue. More than 76% of co-decision proposals and around 5% of consultation proposals were discussed at an informal meeting. The use of trilogues marked significantly several policy areas – Information Society, Enterprise and Industry, Environment, Energy and Transport – where more than 70% of legislation was subjected to trilogues. Overall, the European Parliament gains certain institutional powers, but its influence largely depends on its internal cohesion.
Some may argue that trilogues only demonstrate how flawed EU lawmaking is, how undemocratic it has become. However, the move away from conciliation committees to less formal modes of inter-cameral conflict resolution is not unique to the EU legislature. In fact, resort to informal procedures of decision-making is also taking place in other world legislatures – namely, the US Congress. Americans have increasingly used the amendment ‘ping pong’ method to do their legislative business thus moving away from formal conference committees. The proliferation of trilogues in the EU seems to be a feature of an evolving legislative system, which at least until this day delivers its legislative output efficiently.