Massimo Frigo, Senior Legal Adviser of the International Commission of Jurist’s Europe Programme*
It is sometimes cases on obscure administrative processes that become landmark judgments in the ever constant building of our democratic legal systems. In the US Marbury v. Madison was a case that at the time attracted little attention as the subject matter related to respect of procedures in judicial appointments. This notwithstanding it came to be the legal milestone of constitutional review in the US legal system.
In the European Union one of these cases was decided on 22 March: Emilio De Capitani v. Parliament. As it will be outlined below, it is a technical case that goes to the heart of the procedure of one of the fundamental institutions in a democracy: Parliament.
The EU legislative decision-making process
Unlike the United States, the European Union is not a State. However, it retains more and more competence to legislate in areas of everyday life and of crucial constitutional State prerogatives, including in the sphere of justice and home affairs that includes immigration, asylum, border control, and police cooperation.
The legislative process of the EU may be generally simplified in this way: the European Commission, i.e. a body of supposedly independent experts appointed by the European Council (see, the 28, soon 27, heads of State or government of its Member States) and approved by the European Parliament (the only institutions directly elected by EU citizens), has the initiative to table legislation.
Once the proposal is tabled it is the turn of the co-legislators to discuss it, amend it, approve it or reject it. At any moment the European Commission can withdraw the proposal and put an end to the process.
The EU legislators are the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. The latter consists of the Governments, often in the configuration of the ministries relevant to the legislative piece to be discussed, of the EU Member States. These two bodies must agree on the legislative text, and its potential modifications, and approve it in the same form before it can become law. They can do it in one or two reading sessions.
In the last decades, since this procedure (once called “co-decision” and now the “ordinary legislative procedure”) came to exist, a practical solution to speed up the legislative procedure was found by holding what are called “trilogues”. These are closed meeting among representatives of the Council of the EU, the European Parliament and the European Commission to find a compromise and produce an agreed text that will have to be voted by their respective committees and plenaries into law.
The practice of these trilogues is that no one from the public has access to them nor to any document on the proposed suggestions for compromise. Furthermore, when an agreement is reached, statistically, both the Parliament and the Council almost always approve the agreed compromise into law without further amendments. It is therefore a key moment in the legislative process. And it is absolutely foreclosed to EU citizens and civil society.
Mr De Capitani brought a challenge to the General Court of the European Union, the judicial body competent for cases against EU institutions at first instance, because Parliament, after having consulted the Council and the Commission, refused him access to the part of a document in the legislative process. Specifically this part of the document is the fourth column in a tabled document that reports the compromises reached or suggested during the trilogues, while the first three of them include the original proposal and the positions of the institutions.
The General Court ruled that, “contrary to what the Council maintains …, … the trilogue tables form part of the legislative process.” (para 75, , De Capitani)
It pointed out that
78. … it is precisely openness in the legislative process that contributes to conferring greater legitimacy on the institutions in the eyes of EU citizens and increasing their confidence in them by allowing divergences between various points of view to be openly debated. It is in fact rather a lack of information and debate which is capable of giving rise to doubts in the minds of citizens, not only as regards the lawfulness of an isolated act, but also as regards the legitimacy of the decision-making process as a whole … .
The Court dismissed the EU institutions’ exception that non-disclosure was necessary because the document dealt with a draft law in the area of police cooperation. The Court very strongly ruled that
89… the fact … that the documents at issue relate to the area of police cooperation cannot per se suffice in demonstrating the special sensitivity of the documents. To hold otherwise would mean exempting a whole field of EU law from the transparency requirements of legislative action in that field.
Furthermore the Court stressed that
90…. the documents at issue concern a proposal for a draft regulation, of general scope, binding in all of its elements and directly applicable in all the Member States, which naturally concerns citizens, all the more so since at issue here is a legislative proposal directly affecting the rights of EU citizens, inter alia their right to personal data protection …, from which it follows that the legislative proposal could not be regarded as sensitive by reference to any criterion whatsoever … .
The Court then dealt with the assertion that access to these documents could increase public pressure on the representatives of the EU institutions involved in the trilogue procedure:
98… in a system based on the principle of democratic legitimacy, co-legislators must be held accountable for their actions to the public. If citizens are to be able to exercise their democratic rights they must be in a position to follow in detail the decision-making process within the institutions taking part in the legislative procedures and to have access to all relevant information … Thus, the expression of public opinion in relation to a particular provisional legislative proposal or agreement agreed in the course of a trilogue and reflected in the fourth column of a trilogue table forms an integral part of the exercise of EU citizens’ democratic rights, particularly since … such agreements are generally subsequently adopted without substantial amendment by the co-legislators.
Finally, while allowing still the possibility for certain situations (“duly justified cases”) of non-disclosure for co-legislators, including Parliament (para 112, De Capitani), the Court closed by rejecting also the argument raised by Parliament that making public documents of the trilogue would have taken away the nature of these meetings as a “space to think” . The Court unmistakably reminded Parliament that these meetings are essential parts of the legislative procedure and not “spaces to think” and as such must be subject to the required level of publicity (para 105, De Capitani).
Conclusion: a more democratic EU?
The European Union does not enjoy today the best image in terms of transparency, accountability and democratic processes. Its institutions have been openly attacked from many different quarters for their lack of transparency and the bureaucratic nature of their procedures. Most of these attacks are populist fear-mongering that simply aims at finding a scapegoat to gain political traction, votes and, hence, power. However, as we have seen, some critiques of the EU structure cannot be simply dismissed as political nonsense and one of them is about the legislative process in the EU that affects the lives of almost 500 million people.
The De Capitani ruling throws a breath of fresh air to these institutions and, importantly, demonstrates that, while some institutions of the EU may be criticised for lack of transparency and obedience to the rule of law, there are institutions, notably the EU courts, that can address the problem within.
This ruling can still be subject to appeal before the Court of Justice of the EU. In the meantime and this notwithstanding, the crucial question is whether and how the ruling will be implemented. Will the Parliament, the Council, i.e. the Governments of the Member States, and the Commission open up to democratic scrutiny in legislative process?
The answer to this question will be vital for the EU to withstand any criticism that it does not obey the rule of law and democratic accountability. This is why this case is a turning point for the EU rule of law structure. Much of the legitimacy of the EU as a rule of law based supra-national organisation lies in what its institutions are going to do next. And we’d better be watching…
*Reblogged with permission from the Opinio Juris blog
Barnard & Peers: chapter 5, chapter 9
Photo credit: Walsall College