UK seeks to widen scope of public Council meetings

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Series Details Vol.11, No.43, 1.12.05
Publication Date 01/12/2005
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By Martin Banks

Date: 01/12/05

The UK government, current holder of the EU's rotating presidency, will next week put forward proposals aimed at increasing openness in meetings of the Council of Ministers.

The Council's current practice is for proceedings to be open to the public (relayed by television) only when ministers are holding a final debate on the Council's common position on a legislative proposal that is to be decided by Council and Parliament together (co-decision). In addition, the presentation by the Commission of its most important legislative proposals and the ensuing debate by ministers is made public.

The UK presidency is seeking to extend current practice. A paper to be submitted to a meeting of EU ambassadors on Wednesday (7 December) sets out two options.

The first would be to widen the scope of public sessions to cover all stages of deliberations where the Council is acting in a legislative capacity.

It says a "slightly less ambitious" variant under this option would be to open up all stages of Council deliberations but only when it is legislating under the co-decision procedure.

The transparency paper says that introducing this proposal would merely require amending the Council's rules of procedure.

A second option would be to agree a "political declaration" committing the Council to greater transparency within the existing rules of procedure.

"Under this option, the Council would agree to interpret the existing rules as widely as possible," says the presidency paper.

It goes on: "Either of these options could, and perhaps should, be combined with more practical and innovative measures designed to facilitate access to the Council's proceedings.

"We might, for example, look again at making those debates which are public more readily accessible through better advertising."

A UK presidency source said that after being considered by the committee of permanent representatives, the intention was to submit the paper to the General Affairs Council on 12 December with a view to it being adopted before the end of the presidency.

When they signed up to the EU constitutional treaty, member states backed the idea, in principle, of opening Council meetings to the public.

But the UK's hopes of pushing through agreement on opening up Council meetings before the end of its six-month presidency have been tempered by opposition from some countries, mostly Mediterranean, wary of starting a process of "cherry-picking" aspects of the stalled constitution.

The UK Trade Minister Alan Johnson, appearing before Parliament's internal market committee two weeks ago, was questioned by the UK MEP Bill Newton Dunn about why the Council did not meet in public. He said: "We are in favour but, unfortunately, some other governments are not, so there is nothing I can do."

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair told MEPs in June that he thought there was a "strong case" for the Council to legislate in public, adding: "Let us consider that under our presidency."

UK Liberal Democrat MEP Chris Davies said: "The UK presidency is taking a positive role but while every government in Europe has publicly declared its support for this change, too many are now trying to wriggle out of the commitment.

"If this is the case, the whole dossier will probably be handed over to the Austrian presidency."

Article anticipates a proposal by the UK government, current holder of the EU's rotating presidency, which was to be submitted to the General Affairs Council on 12 December 2005 and which aimed at increasing openness in meetings of the Council of Ministers.

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