The European Commission’s proposal to change rules on direct lawmaking in the EU has so far been met with silence or outright opposition.
In an attempt to let national governments take political ownership of controversial decisions, like on authorising genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the commission proposed in February to modify the so-called ‘comitology’ rules.
Comitology is not very well-known outside EU circles, but has become a common way in Brussels to make legislation through committees with experts from member states.
On Monday (27 November) one such committee made the highly-controversial decision to renew the licence for the weedkiller glyphosate – after 18 months of discussion and stalled votes because too many states had previously abstained.
Often when GMOs are up for approval, roughly a third of member states vote in favour, a third against, and a third abstain, leading to an outcome known as ‘no opinion’. This is then often repeated in the appeal committee.
To increase the likelihood of member states reaching an actual stand – and to prevent the commission from bearing the full responsibility of the final decision – the commission proposed that in the appeal committee abstentions no longer count when calculating a qualified majority in sensitive cases.
Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva on Tuesday (28 November) did not go into detail about the file’s lack of support, but said the EU’s executive was working towards a “solution”.
But 288 days after the commission’s publication of the proposal, it has barely been discussed in the two EU institutions that need to approve it: the European Parliament and the Council of the EU.
Czech, French and British scepticism
The council represents the governments of the EU’s 28 member states. Several of those member states are critical of the proposal.
On 19 October, the committee of European affairs in the French senate said that it considered “the modification of the calculating rules on qualified majority as inconsistent with the [EU] treaties”.
Some months earlier, the Chamber of Deputies of the Parliament of the Czech Republic expressed both “concern” and “doubts” about the proposal.
Polish senators even issued a “negative opinion” on the proposal, saying the plan would introduce a “systemic change”.
The plan “upsets the institutional balance”, according to the Foreign and European Union Affairs Committee of the Polish senate.
Meanwhile in London, the UK government has asked the Commission to provide evidence that the plan “would not disproportionately add bureaucracy and delay to an already complex system”.
London is also “unconvinced” by the Commission’s argument that an impact assessment of the proposal was not needed, a concern also raised by Czech MPs.
The UK’s relation to this file is however different than that of the 27 EU member states who will remain a member of the bloc.
The House of Commons has asked the UK government to be “highly engaged” with the proposal “in order to influence the best outcome for the UK as a future third country”.
The MPs “think it possible that some significant aspects of the UK’s future relationship with the EU, whether in terms of trade or other cooperation, could be implemented through the comitology process”.
They added it was “quite possible” that after March 2019 the UK “might want to align UK law with EU implementing legislation”.
“The crucial question therefore for the government is whether the post-Brexit interests of the UK would be better served by the current comitology processes (which it considers to be evidence-based) or the reforms (which involve more member state input and which it thinks will have a politicising effect),” MPs said.
The European Parliament also needs to agree to the proposal before it can become law.
The parliament has its own qualms with the comitology process, in particular with a legal activitycalled the ‘implementing act’. These are adopted without any role for MEPs.
Six parliament committees will give an opinion about the proposal before amendments are proposed to the lead committee of legal affairs.
So far, one opinion has been adopted, last week, by the economic and monetary affairs committee.
The committee took the opportunity to introduce amendments to the text to increase the role of the EU Parliament, asking for more transparency and “full access” to the comitology register.
More of such amendments can be expected, which will make it difficult for the commission to keep the scope of the proposal “targeted and limited”.
In its proposal, the commission said that the change of voting rules in the appeal committee was needed because the outcome was often the same as in the original committee.
But the glyphosate case this week was evidence to the contrary.
The appeals committee adopted the commission’s proposal to renew the substance’s licence for a period of five years, with only Portugal abstaining.
In a previous vote, four states, including Germany, abstained. This time however, in a twist which is now reverberating in German politics, the EU’s largest state voted in favour of renewal. Ignoring abstentions was not required to break the deadlock.