More than ever before, the recent European elections campaigns seemed to revolve around one single question: are you for or against the EU? That is a pity, since the big political challenge that the EU will have to face during the coming years is not about more or less EU, but about making its decision making function in a democratic manner. To reach that goal, the EU will above all have to start working in a more transparent manner.

By Maarten Hillebrandt

The Big European Debate

“This time it’s different”, large letters on the Berlaymont told passers-by over the past weeks. The Brussels headquarters had placed these banners in an attempt to turn the tumultuous atmosphere among the European electorate into votes. Europhile or Europhobe, it does not matter, the European Parliament told us in Facebook advertisements – as long as you will go and vote. And from the Spitzenkandidaten to the political bloc Le Pen – Wilders, politicians were stumbling over each other to coax voters with their stories of all that is marvellous or despicable about the European government.

In the Netherlands, as the election campaigns came to a head, a reversal seemed to be taking place. Once ignored for its notorious boringness, the EU can now rejoice in considerable media attention. NRC Handelsblad debunked ‘seven myths about the EU’ (“the budget is actually going down, not up”), the Volkskrant offered a stage to a Europhile high school students (“I am in favour of the United States of Europe”), and weekly Elsevier worried about immigration (“Europe must start protecting its inner borders”).

In this way, and partly due to the multiple economic crises to which the EU has responded with drastic measures, a lively debate has arisen over the EU that effectively presents the contradictory views of different societal groups. For decades, citizens fulfilled the role of passive bystanders, feeling ignored. This translated into two distinct responses: disinterest and alienation. Now, a development has finally been set in motion which should have occurred much earlier: the EU is being explained to us, and we are publicly debating its (collective or separate) future.

And yet, unfortunately, the European debate is always bogged down into a flat ‘for or against’. Both the man on the street and the scholar sense that this is not the choice that we are really facing. The result of this trivialisation of pre-electoral debate only created more apathy among the electorate, existential doubt among the intelligentsia, and again a historically low turnout for the European elections.


Not more or less EU, but more openness

In fact, the cries for more or less EU distract us from a more fundamental question. This question is not so much concerned with the desired direction for the EU, but rather with the process through which we determine this direction. In short: (1) how are decisions made in the EU, and (2) if, as a citizen, I do not like these decisions, how do I change them? Most voters are already so discouraged by the first question (and are often proven right in their perception of a complex EU) that they have already opted out before they get to the second question.

In the long term, this is the death blow for democracy. Because, as Jürgen Habermas pointed out last year in his book The Crisis of the European Union: that European train keeps on going irrespective. And, to keep to the metaphor: the distance between the Union and its citizens is therefore growing by the day. The challenge that the European Parliament, our European representative body, is faced with during the coming years is, in the first place, not to realize more or less EU, but an EU that is more open.

Whether the Parliament will succeed in this is still far from sure. Although it has already spoken out in favour of more transparency since the 1980s, the lack thereof in European decision making is endemic. This takes several forms. First, national ministers, gathered in the Council, operate from the outset of the EU in accordance with the norms of diplomacy. The time that even the outcome of negotiations was kept under the fold is now gone, but the tendency to negotiate important deals behind closed doors is still alive and kicking. Thus in fact, the most important part of the European legislative process is conducted under the norms of professional secrecy, a practice that is still vehemently defended by the Council. Only last year, the Council lost an important case before the Court of Justice of the EU that had been filed by a Spanish NGO that had been refused access to the positions of member states in a legislative procedure. Instead of bringing its decision making in line with the spirit of the judgment, the Council immediately began investigating the remaining possibilities of keeping important information around its decision making secret (see e.g. this –partially censored– document).

In some cases, among them a large part of the European package of economic crisis measures, the European Parliament is largely disabled by this lack of transparency (on this topic, see this earlier ACELG blog). But even where the European Parliament acts as a legislator on a par with the Council, it is being ‘sucked into’ a barely transparent decision making culture. In order to speed up decision making, legislative dossiers are routinely negotiated in secrecy between the Parliament and the Council in so-called ‘trialogues’ (in which the Commission represents the third party). The only information that reaches others than the negotiators is the outcome of the negotiations. The negotiations themselves generally remain wholly undocumented, and MEPs are presented with a deal about which only little discussion is still possible. How can such a process of European decision making, already largely inaccessible to democratic representatives, be justified before EU citizens, who are even further removed from it?


A more transparent EU begins with the Parliament

In this way, the different institutions point accusing fingers back and forth. A revision of the law that deals with public access to documents therefore broke down after five years of negotiations, resulting in a regulation that today is still not brought in line with the level of transparency required by the Lisbon Treaty.

However, the European Parliament is not only the good guy that calls bad guy the Council to order over its unwarranted behaviour. When transparency is demanded of its own dealings, the Parliament often responds in an equally convulsive manner. Thus, in 2005 it refused to give the Dutch journalist Gert-Jan Dennekamp access to the participation of MEPs in an additional pension fund, a refusal which it defended into the court. Earlier this year, MEP Van Baalen refused to disclose information on campaign donations that he had received, arguing that he was not legally obliged to do so. And when, last year, the German watchdog Transparency International asked the European Parliament to cooperate in an investigation into the manner in which it guarantees the principles of integrity and accountability, the Parliament refused to cooperate. With this half-hearted attitude, the European Parliament undermines its credibility as a champion of a more democratic EU.

Over the past months, the European Parliament moved heaven and earth to get citizens to vote – with limited results. But the democratic slump runs deeper than an election campaign. A call to the voting booth is in the first place an appeal to participate in democratic life. It will not be echoed as long as citizens are systematically withheld access to vital information. More or less EU, the first priority must be that the discussion is held in all openness. It would therefore by fitting for the European Parliament, over the coming years, to take every possible step to make the EU’s decision making more transparent.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Dutch on and


Maarten Hillebrandt MSc is a PhD researcher at the Amsterdam Centre for European Law and Governance. His personal page can be accessed here.

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