Contrary to popular belief, national governments play a key role in shaping EU laws. That is why there needs to be more transparency when they discuss issues that will affect all EU citizens, watchdogs say.

When Swedish MEP Frederick Federley asks his audience next week how to make negotiations on draft EU laws more transparent, many will point at member states representatives in Brussels.

Federley will host an event in the European Parliament on 5 December to discuss transparency concerns in the EU decision-making process, a topic that has drawn the attention of civil society and watchdogs.

Before EU laws are approved, representatives from all 28 member states, who make up the Council of Ministers, gather in Brussels in order to agree on a common position for each proposal. This position then serves as the Council’s mandate during the final negotiations between the three EU institutions – the European Commission, Parliament and Council.

Albeit this is an effective and democratic process in theory, transparency issues generally arise when the ball is in the court of member states and all the way through the inter-institutional negotiations, known as trialogues.

In July, a report by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) highlighted that, unlike the European Parliament and Commission, the Council’s mandate is not always publicly available.

Emily O’Reilly, the European Ombudsman investigating complaints about maladministration in EU institutions, opened an inquiry in March to assess whether country representatives allow sufficient public scrutiny of EU law proposals.

She put 14 questions to the Council on how legislative documents of national ambassadors, committees and working parties are handled in accordance with EU transparency standards.

In a statement O’Reilly said:

In the current political climate, it is vital to ensure clarity for EU citizens on the shaping of EU laws. This would help to clear up some popular misunderstandings about who exactly develops and agrees new laws, and separate out in the public mind the responsibility of ‘Brussels’ from the responsibility of the Member States.”

This level of secrecy means that citizens are not always made aware of the decisions that their governments make in Brussels and of the state of the negotiations with the Commission and Parliament.

As a result, they are often unable to influence the discussions on important matters that will directly affect them.

Petros Fassoulas, Secretary General of the European Movement International told METAmag that:

the EU has come a long way in terms of openness and in many cases it does better than many of its member states. But there is a lot to be done, especially with the Council of Ministers and the European Council.”

“To address the feeling many citizens have that decisions are made behind closed doorsthe Council needs to adopt a more robust attitude towards transparent decision-making and inclusive debate on the big issues on the EU’s agenda.

The lack of information available to citizens can indeed be a hindrance to democracy, according to the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

As part of an ongoing investigation, the EEB asked governments whether they would support EU proposals to boost recycling targets and waste prevention. Safe in the knowledge that the state of play would allow them to remain silent, some countries refused to respond but eventually came out with a position following pressure from civil society and media.

Now many wonder whether any actions will be taken to address such concerns.