The reform of Community decision-making: the impossibility of simplification?

Article published on April 9, 2003
community published
Article published on April 9, 2003

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A few explanations for those who want to better understand Community decision-making processes and their possible reform.

Seen from the outside, the Community decision-making procedure is often labelled as complicated and incomprehensible. The simplification of the diverse methods of decision-making is one of the most sensitive debates in the Convention, because it affects the positions of the institutions with respect to the others. What is more, in the context of the extension of Community competencies and of the enlargement of the Union, the simplification of decision-making comes up against power games and the reticence of the Member States over moving from an economic Europe to a political one.

Under the Treaty of Nice, the basic acts identify no less that 15 different decision-making procedures of the Community, which combine simple majority, qualified majority, unanimity in the Council and consultation, assent, or co-decision in the Parliament. These distinctions are the direct consequence of the difficulties faced in democratising the decision-making process and the reluctance of the Member States to really commit themselves to political Europe. In reality, the co-decision procedure with qualified majority voting in the Council has become the rule: so we have ended up with a reality of less diverse and comlex procedures. Yet making this change official through the the Convention's future constitution remains controversial.

The now common co-decision procedure is itself complicated: the European Parliament gives a first opinion on a text proposed by the Commission to the Council who rule by qualified majority. Then the text goes back to the European Parliament for amendment, then again to the Council: in cases of disagreement with the Parliament, a conciliation committee is formed. This long procedure was simplified in the Amsterdam Treaty, which ended the possiblity of a third Parliament reading, and introduced the possibility for the Parliament, Council and Commission to come to agreement at the first reading stage. This was made possible by the development of informal contacts between the three institutions at the first and second readings through 'trialogues'. Although the decision-making procedure has become more efficient, it does remain complex. Yet it must be remembered that this complexity is precisely the result of the increasing prerogatives of the European Parliament, the institution representing the democratic legitimacy of the Community.

The simplicity of the federal system

The decision-making procedure is equally complex for implementation. Proposed by the Commission in order to apply the basic texts (i.e. the Treaty), they are then examined by committees of experts appointed by the Member States who can, in case of disagreement with the Commission, ask the Council to take a final decision. Comitology (the principles which rule the functioning and behaviour of these expert committees) may permit the control of the implementation rules made by the Commission by the Council, but it remains a complex process. There are three distinct procedures depending on the nature of the text and numerous are those who criticise this process which largely escapes the democratic control of the Parliament. We can easily see here the effects of power games: systematic control by the Parliament over all implementation measures would make the process even heavier, even though it would be democratically justified. Moreover, the increasing workload of the Commission in terms of implementation measures could lead the latter to review the organisation of all its work. In order to concentrate on its role as initiator, the Commission will perhaps be obliged to 'contract out' the control of implementation measures to external agents. The constitution proposal Penelope of December 2002, officiously presented by the Commission to contribute to the Convention debate, takes this position.

The simplification of the decision-making process therefore brings up essential question on the role and the legitimacy of each institution, which explains the current standstill on the debate. This is a result of the institutional triangle of the Commission, Council and Parliament and of the original combination of democratic, national and bureaucratic legitimacy of the Community institutions. From now on, considering the difficulties of simplification also means rethinking specific community legitimacy: the decision-making process would be more simple and more efficient if we moved to a federal system.