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The schizophrenic Council

Are you allowed to spoil a party when you are invited? What if the host of the party actually is quite schizophrenic, one day ignores you and the other day treats you like your best friend?

The EU Council is such a schizophrenic institution. EU member states either use it to fight populist fights against other countries to gain points back home or they try everything to secure the secrecy of the institution to stand for policies they would not be ready to defend publicly.

Tomorrow, I’m invited to participate in the second round of the pilot project in which selected bloggers get an accreditation to the EU Council. The Extraordinary Council on Justice and Home Affairs (follow the link for the background note) meets to mainly discuss migration issues at the southern borders of the EU following the beginning of the Libyan war.

I’ll be, for the second time, able to see the Council meeting as any accredited journalist can see it (i.e. not the meeting but the stuff around it), including off-the-record briefings I’m not supposed to talk about (that’s part of the pact between journalists and institutions).

Joe, who’s participating with me, has already asked the public on the Guardian’s “Comment is Free” to propose questions we could ask tomorrow, and a heated discussion, including some interesting proposals has developed.

At the same time, I’m still waiting for a document I had requested from the Council on 11 April in order to write an in-depth blog post on the European Maritime Safety Agency and the possible reform (see my article on the visit to this EU body last month), which I never did because I didn’t get the full document from the Council.

The document requested was not public at all when I requested it and I was given partial access on 18 April, blanking out the names of member states – actually the main information I wanted to have. So on 26 April I filed a confirmatory application to get the full document, an application that however has not been discussed at the meeting of the responsible working group in the Council last Friday.

Given that the next meeting of this group is only next week on Friday, the 15 working days the Council has to react to such a request will have passed – and according to Article 8.3 of Regulation 1049/2001 I have to start considering going to Court or starting a procedure at the EU Ombudsman to come to my right.

So the same Council that pretends to be open by inviting me as a more or less selected blogger to cover a Council meeting from behind the scenes, bringing in a “kind-of” citizen’s perspective, is effectively preventing me from blogging about substance by not acknowledging my citizen’s right to openness, refusing to fully publish  a document that I wanted to have to blog almost a month ago.

Until now, despite all the social media buzz the Council is trying to produce, the secrecy and ignorance I see when trying to get to the substance of policy-making still is the real face of this EU institution that may have started to understand how 21st century PR works but that has not yet understood how 21st century democracy should look like.

I know that behind these processes there are different people and I acknowledge the determination (and to a certain extend risk-taking) of those pushing for change, but I’d prefer not to be invited to Council meetings as a blogger in exchange for getting member states’ positions in all legislative documents, including at preparatory stages.

So I will be in the Council tomorrow to cover what I can cover, trying to bring in a little more light, but don’t expect me to believe that by having two bloggers in the holy sphere of the press anything of substance has changed.

There’s a long way to go for that, and unless the Council does not change in this regard a lot of the citizens outreach is just cosmetics.

Update: See Joe’s and my coverage of the Council meeting here, here and here. And on Twitter.



24 Responses to The schizophrenic Council

  1. avatar Jaanika Erne says:

    I accidentally read today from Wikipedia (which is not a scientific source) some interesting facts about Gathafi that have not been revealed to public, such as he was bestowed the title of King of Kings of Africa in 2008, but concerning also other reasons for attacking him.

  2. avatar Ralf Grahn says:

    The PR exercise of European Council president Herman Van Rompuy on Facebook could have been named as an example.

    Inviting questions from EU citizens was a great idea, but delivery to date has been a resounding flop, with regard to quantity and quality of replies (comments).

  3. avatar auldfaart says:

    Didn’t the psychotic cross-dresser bestow the title of King of Kings of Africa upon himself ? I think he did.

  4. avatar mathew says:

    Once again, a great post! Key question for me: are the documents you want available to the press but not to bloggers, or are you being equally badly?

  5. avatar Jaanika Erne says:

    Academic suggestion – Try reading “Foreign Affairs”, esp. about the structure of the United States’ foreign policy. (Just that unfortunately non-academic news spread quicker than the academic ones.)

  6. avatar Reijo Kemppinen says:

    Sorry I read your blog only today. You are quite welcome to come and spoil our parties in the future as well. Giving bloggers accreditation to the Council meetings is about us being open and acknowledging the changing of media and communication. So you can come, you can observe and you can write in your blog things as you see them. And I can read and reply and we probably both agree this is good use of social media. I fail to see the populism in our approach.
    The access to documents is another matter. I unreservedly apologise the fact that we have missed the deadline. You will get a reply. The issue is on the agenda of the Working Party of Information next Friday. Whether you will actually get the document, part of it or only a polite refusal will not depend on you or your blog but on the content of the document you have requested. So you were right is saying that there is a problem but I think your diagnosis was wrong: the patient is not suffering from schizophrenia but from a rather mild form of byrochratis (if this is a word I must have invented it).

  7. avatar Ronny Patz says:

    Dear Reijo,

    thanks a lot for you reaction, that is much appreciated! What I wanted to make clear with this blog post is that there are different sides to transparency and openness.

    A policy to open up to bloggers is one way of showing readiness to open the blinds for a public so far excluded, which is important and I don’t want to downplay the positive change of attitude behind this move.

    However, and that’s the point I wanted to make with this post, if I want to blog about the substance of the work of the Council, especially when I’m not in the journalist area like yesterday, I am dependent on having public access to all kinds of information and documents. So opening to bloggers (meaning: a wider public) is more than giving physical access to specific areas of a building.

    When I say schizophrenic I refer to a situation like the one I witnessed yesterday:

    Being a blogger accredited to the Council, I could listen to an official informally telling me and journalists quite exactly the positions member states had taken in a meeting. However, if I requested the protocol of that meeting where these positions are also documented I’d probably be denied access or I’d have to go at least through the stage of confirmatory application, which takes up to six weeks.

    For me this shows that the Council may be evolving at different speeds (but it’s not just the Council, you’d find that throughout most organisations), with those having a stronger connection to the outside world realising that something is changing out there while those who are trapped inside the structure still behave like in the 20th century.

    I call that schizophrenic, but I’m hopeful that there’s a way to heal that – and that the good side of the personality will prevail! :)

  8. avatar Reijo Kemppinen says:

    I think you’re touching a very important – and sensitive – question which may have less to do with the Council or the EU than the evolution of media. Much of political communication stems from the need to discuss developments that are not directly accessible to public. Political journalism lives from the dual access to information and a wider audience, the public. It reveals what would otherwise not be known and it explains what might otherwise not be understood. What you’re asking for presumes access to everyone and everything, without restrictions or interpretation. Whose pain would that ease? Name a country or a political system where that happens. Another point: the reason for our institutional caution also lies in the thus far unresolved debate of the relationship between traditional news media and social media. We’re watching, we’re learning… and we’re grateful for every opinion we receive.

  9. avatar Falk Lüke says:

    @Ronny: I can tell you from a journalist perspective not residing in Brussels that this is my experience with EU institutions, spokespeople and others, like the presidencies and their press guys, too.

    For example I asked the press guy from the hungarian presidency to help me finding any docs on the LEWP regarding ‘Digital Schengen area’. Do you really think he ever replied at least to my mail (3 weeks)? Since EDRi already found something useful I did not have to rely on the miserable press work EU institutions of all kinds are doing. But since I can compare I can say from a journalist pov that I can understand every journo who think’s f*** off EU institutions as long as they don’t even manage to get any answers delivered.

    @Reijo: believe me, what EU means to journalists is not just a single ounce better. If documents are not published by weired technical information infrastructure like EURLEX, you are having tough times to get access officialy(!).

  10. avatar Ralf Grahn says:

    @Reijo Kemppinen

    I welcome your willingness to present your institutional media view in fairly open terms. Open reasoning is the way forward.

    However, I doubt if government based on leaks, or even privileged access for more or less established media is quite the correct guiding philosophy for EU institutions (or governments in general).

    The basic norm regarding the European Union could hardly be more solemnly placed, in Article 1 TEU.

    The guiding principle is an EU where ‘decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen’.

    While there will always remain some real need for secrecy in the work of public entities, equal access to all (who are interested enough) puts matters into perspective.

    The interests of politicians, national sensitivities, EU officials and media come second. Actually, institutions and officials are there to serve the citizens of the EU, according to the ‘principle of equality’ and ‘equal attention’ (Article 9 TEU).

    If the EU institutions internalise these basic principles, both access to information generally and access to specific documents would improve, resulting in more transparency and accountability than we see today.

    As I have intimated in recent posts on my blogs, more open discussion of policy alternatives might lead to better policy outcomes. Even promising ideas about PR exercises need to be followed through in order to enhance credibility.

  11. avatar Dagmawi Elehu says:

    @Reijo Kemppinen

    As Ralf I welcome and applaud your willingness to discuss the practices of the EU institutions. Also as Ralf I am doubtful about the merits of a governance system based on informal and restricted information to the public, i.e. institutionalised leaks.

    You wtite “What you’re asking for presumes access to everyone and everything, without restrictions or interpretation[..] Name a country or a political system where that happens.” I name two countries (not entirely without restriction but certainly without interpretation), your own (Finland) and mine (Sweden). In Sweden the constitution [1] gives anyone anonymous access to any “public record”, i.e. information on any media prepared or processed by any public entity, except for exhaustive list of types of information (like crime fighting and medical journals) or when explicitly classified. Classification must be motivated and can be appealed. Additionally information must be given “with haste” meaning within the same day or the next at the latest. [2]

    Ronny writes “this EU institution that may have started to understand how 21st century PR works but that has not yet understood how 21st century democracy should look like.” This Swedish constitutional provision has been in effect (almost [3]) continously since 1776 [1] and is also part of the constitution of Finland [2] and other countries.

    So no, not entirely without restriction, but the presumption doesn’t have to be that information has to be restricted and the decision is whether to release it. As shown the presumption can be that the information should be public and the decision is if the information fulfills high criteria for classification.

    [1] http://riksdagen.se/templates/R_Page____8908.aspx
    [2] http://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Offentlighetsprincipen
    [3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitution_of_Sweden#Public_access_to_governmental_documents

  12. Isn’t this like comparing apples and oranges? How the Council responds to a freedom-of-information request and how Presidencies handle comms for their term are different things. Now, Ronny has greater experience applying for documents like this than me, but I tend to view this sort of thing more as bureaucracy than wilful obfuscation or foot-dragging. It will be discussed at the next working group and the document will either turn up a little late or he’ll be denied his request. Frustrating. However, nothing unique to the Council about this – the same thing happens at the national level all the time.

    The blogger pilot programme – especially if it leads to some of the things we talked about with the Council comms team afterwards – could end up being more than just “buzz.” One of the things we discussed was the possibility of Presidencies inviting representatives of their national blogospheres to Brussels – once at the beginning and once at the end of the Presidency – to meet bloggers of the outgoing Presidency’s country (and maybe to meet some native “Brussels bloggers”). If this were done regularly then, over time, you could start to network the European blogosphere. Which could have interesting results.

    Now, I would also choose a more efficient bureaucracy over an effective comms strategy any day of the week. However, if a stronger, more coordinated and more interested European blogosphere leads to critical posts like this (that then give the Council a kick in the pants and get them to release documents on time)… how are the two mutually exclusive?

  13. avatar Ronny Patz says:

    @Joe

    I actually do not complain so much about the bureaucratic procedure and the time it takes – it’s more about the fact that member states’ positions are often not made public in documents, in particular not at preparatory stages.

    The bureaucratic procedure of asking for disclosure of such a document and the information therein is just the symptom of the problem, the fact that it takes time just frustrating because it means that the institutions do not have procedures in place that correspond to the needs and speeds of modern communication.

    So the problem is to consider that this information needs to be withheld from the public. Because of this problem I have to request the document instead of finding it publicly available in a register. And because this request is handled by a procedure that takes quite some time – in this case even beyond the limit foreseen by the regulation but that’s a minor thing – I’m not able to blog about it because the story has passed a month ago.

  14. avatar Jakob Thomsen says:

    When reading the different contributions made on this blog over the past few days, you could get the impression that the EU institutions, and in particular the Council, are as “opaques” as they used to be – a quarter of a century ago.

    Now, if you compare the transparency policy as implemented by the institutions of the European Union with national law and practice in the EU Member States, you will probably come to the conclusion that the EU institutions are pretty mainstream. This also means that they are a lot more open than you might think they are.

    In 2010, no less than 75 % of the documents produced and recorded in the Council’s document register were public upon circulation (i.e. as from day one), while a total of 274 items on the Council’s agenda were dealt with in public. All preparatory documents that serve as a basis for a public deliberation or a public debate at ministerial level are public.

    Preparatory documents reflecting the state of discussions at working group level (as the one requested by Ronny Patz) are also made public in their entirety, if not before, then at least following the final adoption of the legislative acts to which they refer.

    The fact that most of these documents are made partially accessible (not revealing the identity of the delegations), while negotiations are ongoing at the working group level, has so far not appeared to be a real problem for users of the Council’s document register, who follow the work of the institution for professional reasons, since most of them are pretty familiar with Member States’ positions on the different policy issues anyhow.

    Against that background, you could ague of course, that it would not matter if all preparatory documents on legislative issues were made public in real time, irrespective of the difficulties which Member States may sometimes experience in finding common ground on certain, politically sensitive issues.

    Still, it does not take a political scientist to imagine that such a practice would lead to the production of documents which would be considerably less informative and provide the readers with less insight in the real issues than those which are produced under the current practice. If the stakes are high, nothing of real importance will be said in public, until a compromise has been found. This observation applies not specifically to the decision-making process at the EU level, but to any political-institutional decision-making process at whatever level.

  15. avatar Ronny Patz says:

    @Jakob

    First of all also thanks to you that, after the head of communications of the Council has already responded above, you as responsible official for the access to document requests at the Council as for reacting here on the blog – this is very much appreciated.

    Let me just recall the starting point of this blog post: As a short-time accredited blogger (i.e. getting a perspective every accredited journalist gets frequently) I was able to get information on member states informally that I would not get in a document that would basically contain the same information.

    This is the more interesting as the Council on Justice on Home Affairs was discussing pre-legislative questions while the reform of the European Maritime Safety Agency is a legislative process, thus as somebody accredited to the Council I was better informed about information that according to your argument really needs to be protected while as the same person I can’t get information on law-making that should be public according to the Lisbon Treaty and its interpretation by the European Court of Justice.

    I did also not say that the Council has not advanced in making documents public over the last decade, and I’m glad it did so. However, when it gets to the point of knowing what stance member states officials and politicians – people who are acting as representatives of the sovereign: EU citizens – take during ongoing legislative processes, there still way to go. If I don’t know what they stand for, citizens and the public do not have a chance to actually influence decision-making that is meant to made in their names.

    Then, I’ve heard the argument that more transparency in documents will lead to less transparency within these same documents a lot in the past year*. I think the argument is flawed for at least a practical and a political reasons:

    (1) In praxis, I doubt that modern administrations, in particular those that are as complex as the EU, could work without keeping track of developments and positions taken during decision-making processes. Relying on the memories of officials seems pretty unlikely for most of these processes, so somewhere most details will always be written down in a documents.

    (2) Politically speaking, saying that opening more documents (or information in documents) to the public results in more secret behaviour is an acknowledgement that a change in law (as it has been done with the Lisbon Treaty) that binds all institutions and officials is not followed by a change in culture that is needed to put this law into practice. This argument is like saying that after introducing a law on how to properly handle toxic waste on official dumps companies will dispose more waste illegally. In this case, the reasonable demand would be to put in place more controls and considerably raising the fines for illegal behaviour until there is a culture of legal behaviour…

    And last, the argument that those who use the register know quite well what member states think is a very strong Brussels bubble view, because in the bubble a lot is known that never leaves Brussels, a perspective I’ve again experienced while being invited as an accredited blogger to the Council. I think this needs to change.

    * As a volunteer, I advise the EU office of Transparency International (among other things) on questions of access to EU documents and have thus come across this issue a lot over the last year. However, the request for documents we are talking about in this post was not done in the context of this advisory work but simply because I wanted to write an informed blog post for the ThInk About It blogging project. I actually did not think this would develop into a more theoretical story on transparency especially since there was an earlier document from the same process on the EMSA reform where member states’ positions were made public.

  16. avatar Jakob Thomsen says:

    @ Ronny Patz

    Thank you for your quick reaction to my comments. Just a few observations as regards respectively the administrative culture and the behaviour of the negotiators.

    The introduction of public Council sessions, as foreseen in Article 15 (2) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has been accompanied by a change in the working procedures of the Council and its General Secretariat as reflected in Articles 7 – 9 of the Council’s Rules of Procedure and the Annex II to those Rules (see notably Article 11 (5) of the Annex).
    http://eurlex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2009:325:0035:0061:EN:PDF

    There can be no doubt that this fundamental change, embedded in the Lisbon Treaty, has increased transparency and openness as regards Member States’ positions with regard to the ongoing legislative work in the Council. The often heard criticism that Member States’ positions are unknown to the public, before proposed EU-legislation is finally adopted by the Council is therefore not justified at this juncture in time. Ministers are well aware of their obligation to state reasons for their government’s position on the different legislative measures and do it in public.

    Yet, if you take a close look of the functioning of the political and parliamentary institutions in the EU Member States, you will invariably come to the conclusion that compromises on sensitive political issues are hardly ever struck in public. The European Parliament and the Council are no exceptions to that rule. The good news is that, in both institutions, the positions of the political actors as regards such compromises/ the outcome of negotiations are now stated in public, as it is the case in the parliaments of the Member States when they deliberate on legislative matters

    To what extent, a possible change of practice in the form of a systematic “real time release” of the outcome of negotiations at the working group level will affect the course of these discussions and hence the content of the preparatory documents remains to be seen. On a personal note, I would recommend a cautious approach in this respect – also in the light of the Swedish debate launched several years ago by Inga-Britt Ahlenius, who has argued that absolute openness may lead to a loss of real insight in the decision-making process.

  17. avatar Ronny Patz says:

    @ Jakob

    The introduction of public debates on legislative files on the ministers’ level in the Council is indeed nice. Yet, having a 2h ‘tour de table’ to hear the general lines that ministers have on a specific draft law just the upper surface of the formulation of EU law in the Council, and a lot of files are already closed on the level(s) below and agreed without debate by the ministers. Public debates of ministers are thus just a glimpse into the large work of the Council.

    Comparing compromise-making in the EU Parliament and in the Council and saying its the same is misleading. In the Parliament, most committee debates are public and we can watch them on the internet. Most legislative files are thus debated several times in public before the responsible Parliamentarian for the file (‘Rapporteur’) publishes her/his report. After it is published, there is sufficient time to table amendments and all amendments made are made public (signed by the MEP who tabled it). Then there may be some compromises on amendments, but I can watch the vote in committee live. And in the end, there’s again the public vote in plenary. In between, or when it comes to compromise-making with the Council, there are phases that are not public, but at least changes are traceable and political responsibilities are attributable before the process is closed. Few of that is possible on the Council level unless a file is so conflictual that ministers are asked to deal with it during their valuable time.

    Altogether, I’m not for absolute transparency but I’m convinced that once a member state has decided to issue an amendment (or voice a clear opinion on a file) in a legislative process it should be read to stand to this amendment publicly and it should be ready to stand to the fact that it changes its mind, is joining compromises or is outvoted later in the processes publicly, too. I don’t think that this is absolute transparency, it is basic transparency because this would still leave a lot of room for informal discussions.

  18. avatar Jakob Thomsen says:

    @ Ronny Patz

    Thanks again for your comments. Although I do not wish to eternalise this discussion, I would like to make just a few observations on the working procedures in the European Parliament – in order to illustrate why the ways in which compromises are struck in the Council and in the EP are actually comparable after all.

    It is true that the Committee meetings in the European Parliament are normally public, including the votes. It is also true that the discussions during those meetings are frequently a lot more lively than the debates in plenary where time constraints unfortunately prevent a detailed exchange of views between the representatives of the different political groups.

    Yet, the initial discussions on a proposal for a legislative act which may or may not take place on the basis of a working document drawn up by the rapporteur are in most cases of a rather informal character, and only few of the MEPs who take the floor at that stage are likely to “set their position in concrete”. This is understandable, and this behaviour should not be criticised. Time is needed to digest not only the implications of the Commission’s proposal, but also the rapporteur’s analysis of that proposal.

    Now, my point is that when the real negotiations between the political groups begin, they take place in another forum – between the “group coordinators” (spokesmen), ” shadow rapporteurs” etc. And the outcome of these discussions then materialise in the form of amendments, that may or may not be thoroughly motivated in the explanatory memorandum established by the rapporteur or, depending on the file, be commented on in some detail by the key players at a subsequent Committee meeting or during the debate in plenary,

    This after all very centralised decision-making process within the EP has a lot to do with the need for efficiency and also with the need for establishing a division of labour between the members of the political groups who, for very obvious reasons, cannot be closely involved in the work of all the parliamentary committees at the same time. They will have to specialise themselves in a few areas and rely upon the information they receive on the work of other committees than their own through their political groups.

    The need for some kind of specialisation at Committee level is also known from the national parliaments. Only this will allow for thorough scrutiny of envisaged legislation. Yet, for the reasons set out above, the decision-making process in the EP is very centralised, and – as it is the case elsewhere – the global compromises between the political groups are rarely struck in public during the committee meetings, but are negotiated elsewhere by the designated representatives of the political groups.

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