Monday, February 04, 2008

"Secretive and bizarre" decision-making

Picked up from the Western Mail, a regional Welsh newspaper, comes a story headed, "MPs call for greater EU 'openness'".

Also covered by Politics.co.uk and The Sun (illustrated), the story retails news of a report from the European Scrutiny Committee which, we are told, has its members demanding an end to the "secretive and bizarre" way that decisions are made by European Union leaders.

Perversely, we can find no corresponding report in the Committee’s website. Its latest production there is dated 29 January and does not overtly deal with the issue to hand.

This notwithstanding, the Western Mail story tells us that the Committee is urging greater openness about the actions of the European Council. It also complains that parliaments in some of the other member states are given access to draft European Council documents which our local government withholds from the House of Commons.

The Committee also notes that, despite claims that the sessions are taped, there is no verbatim record of how conclusions are reached. The only records are based on secretary's notes, which are relayed to officials, who then try to advise their respective heads of government against bad decisions before it is too late.

The Committee also took evidence from former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett. She told the MPs that, "Occasionally it will be too late, because by the time you know what has happened, at least 20 minutes, probably more, have passed between what was discussed and you all knowing that it was discussed."

As a result, we are told, Parliaments, the press and the public were being denied the ability to scrutinise the Council's decisions. "In our view, this is unsatisfactory and we recommend that the Government discuss with other member states the options for improving the process and removing the present inefficiencies and eccentricities; and, in particular, whether a clear, definitive and accessible record of the proceedings of the European Council should be made as a matter of course," says the Committee.

The committee also said it was unconvinced by Government claims that it could not submit draft documents to Parliament because they were confidential and such a move would be impractical. MPs learned during their inquiry that some national parliaments already received copies of the drafts, which were known to have a wide circulation in Brussels.

"It seems to us indefensible that the Westminster Parliament is denied access to the draft conclusions when some other national parliaments are provided with the draft conclusions by their governments and have the opportunity to question ministers about them before the meeting of the European Council," the Committee said.

All sterling stuff, except that, when it comes to debates about the Council meetings in the House, very few MPs trouble to attend and, in any case, there is very little they can do about what is decided. And even then, the media scarcely bothers to report the proceedings, most journalists unable even to understand that the European Council actually is.

However, it was a good try by the Committee, and even The Sun got a headline out of it.

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