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Opening up by Closing off? Informalisation and Transparency in EU Trade Policy

Book - Dissertation

There exists today a wide-spread belief that decision-making in the European Union (EU) mainly takes place behind closed-doors, in secret backrooms and informal conversation in the corridors. In the case of EU trade policy, a perception of secretiveness due to the widespread use of informality has sparked extensive criticism from both public and parliamentary actors. At the same time however, the European Commission (Commission) as the main negotiator of the EU's international trade agreements, has made significant improvements to its transparency policy for trade negotiations. It has shifted from a reactive access-to-documents policy towards a proactive access-to-information strategy, intended to enhance the consumption of the available information (Chapter 2). However, empirical observation shows that this increased transparency coincided with the development of a pervasive informalisation of institutional decision-making. Moreover, this concurrence is far from being an isolated event, as similar instances have been observed in a wide array of cases. Considering that transparency and informality are generally regarded as opposing forces (in particular with regards to how they impact democratic legitimacy), their coexistence seems confusing at best and outright impossible at worst. While transparency is often heralded as a cure-all for democratic deficits and lacking accountability, informality is generally seen as promoting secretive decision-making practices, used to intentionally circumvent or even counteract transparency in favour of decision-making efficiency and to the detriment of legitimacy of decision-making. How is it possible that improved transparency and informality in international negotiation coincide when they seem to be each other's antithesis? What makes this paradoxical co-existence work? And most importantly, how does a desire to increase transparency more often than not seem to end up encouraging simultaneous processes of informalisation? The thesis aims to answer these questions. The analysis of informal technical meetings (ITMs) between the Council of Ministers l and the Commission shows how the need for more accountability of the Commission as a supranational actor and demands from member states for more transparency have also resulted in more informal communication (Chapter 1). The cooperative dynamics that are present within informal technical meetings give the first clues as to why informalization and transparency are not necessarily contradictory: the informalisation is driven not by a desire for secrecy towards outside actors, but by a willingness to reduce information asymmetry and to promote openness and honesty between both institutions. Chapter 2 and 3 illustrate how also in the attempt to enhance transparency of EU trade policy towards public and parliamentary actors, a far-reaching "underground" network of informal information exchange emerged between the members and staff of the European Parliament (Parliament) and the Commission. As in Chapter 1, the findings suggest that informality in EU trade policy is used as a way to enhance transparency towards the European Parliament as a democratically representative actor, rather than maintain secrecy towards outside actors. The in-depth study of the renewed inter-institutional balance between the Commission and the Parliament confirms this essential (yet too often disregarded) role that informality can play in institutional relations (Chapter 4). Strengthened institutional transparency, higher quality and optimized consumption of information by the Parliament are preconditions for improving the throughput legitimacy and accountability of EU trade policy as a whole. So why does improved transparency coincide with informalization of decision-making? This thesis demonstrates that - contrary to general assumption - informalisation is not necessarily opposed to transparency and does not have to form a threat to legitimacy. Depending on the nature and preferences of the actors to which the transparency is aimed, informalisation relieves transaction costs from increased transparency. Informality therefore does not automatically lead to transparency initiatives becoming undone. On the contrary, informalisation and transparency in EU trade policy co-exist because they support - instead of counter-act - each other. In addition, informalisation used to improve institutional transparency towards democratically representative actors like the European Parliament supports the goals that transparency is aimed towards: improving the democratic legitimacy and accountability of EU trade policy.
Publication year:2019