Questionnaire on Open Council Meetings, Part II

And the results are…

In an earlier blog post, Open Government in the EU  reported that the Council Secretariat had taken the initiative of a questionnaire among Member State delegations concerning attitudes and practices around situations where the Council meets and legislates in the open. Just over a month later, the results of the questionnaire are out.

The earlier reaction of this blog was one of cautionary optimism. Further research into the attitudes of the Member States when it comes to transparency is to be welcomed. The General Secretariat’s open search for best practices is even to be applauded. On the other hand, under the extreme polarisation that has come to characterise the EU’s transparency debate, yours truly expected it to be unlikely that Member States would be fully open about their attitude towards transparency, and the effect of transparency on the organisation of their daily practice.

This cautionary optimism was, it now appears, in place. While the questionnaire does not reveal anything the informed observer wasn’t already aware of, further steps are taken towards the improvement and standardisation of transparent decision-making practices. It is observed that Member State responses are not quoted, nor are the identities of Member States revealed. (In the light of the recent Access Info Europe judgement, the court found that, this should be the standard where legislative activity is concerned.) Statements are grouped as “most Member States”, or “in general…”, while nothing in the responses reveals the sense of alarm about transparency that has typified Member States in other settings.

What gives rise to optimism, however, is that the questionnaire hints at a willingness to strengthen the link between transparency and publicity. The academic literature has long pointed out that while the Council may be relatively transparent, the information that it puts out does not usually give rise to much publicity, i.e., an awareness and consumption of that information by the broader public. Measures are now suggested to improve the publicity link: the press corps is to be informed more systematically about meetings and documents, and document drafters are advised to pay attention to the understandability of their vocabulary. Moreover, interestingly, the questionnaire sees a potential in instruments of ICT, for example by the creation of a special app.

We will wait and see what comes of the suggested measures for improvement of transparency decision-making. An important point that the Council should not lose sight of, is the reason why it seeks to be more transparent. In the meanwhile, those interested in the “black box” of Council decision-making are referred to the websites of non-partisan NGO Votewatch Europe, and the European Parliaments legislative observatory.