Transparency: who really makes the decisions?

This isn’t about EU bashing. Nor is it about having a go at civil servants or diplomats. Most of these people work very hard and for the common good and deserve more of our attention and support. But how can they have that if we don’t know who they are and what they do?

Decision-making process in a nutshell

Lots of people don’t really know how decisions are made in the EU and by whom. That’s hardly surprising given the lack of information available and the misinformation peddled by the media. So here is the short version:

For matters which the EU decides (i.e. things where the Member States have agreed that decisions should be made at EU level):

  • The European Commission makes proposals for legislation (often at the suggestion of the Council of the European Union – see below)
  • The Council of the European Union and the European Parliament both have to agree to the proposal

The Council of the European Union is the governments of the Member States working together. The European Parliament is the people elected to that role directly by the citizens of the 27 Member States.

How does that actually work in the Council of the European Union?

The European Parliament works much like other parliaments through a series of committees and makes final decisions in plenary sittings. All that is well documented and in the public domain and there is a wealth of information available on the European Parliament website. This post isn’t about that.

The situation in the Council of the European Union is more complicated.

What we see – if we follow these issues – are reports of summits of the senior politicians meeting from time to time, usually in Brussels. But we all understand that this isn’t where the nitty gritty gets discussed and resolved. And this isn’t the Council of the European Union; it’s the European Council.

We may also see – from time to time and if there is something particularly newsworthy happening – reports from meetings of government ministers from the Member States. Again, and whilst these are important, they aren’t where the detail gets discussed.

The Permanent Representations

The key to understanding how it all works is to know that eachMemberStateof the EU has what is called a Permanent Representation inBrussels. These are, to all intents and purposes, embassies. They are called Permanent Representations because they represent the Member State to an international institution rather than to another country’s government.

Each of the Permanent Representations is headed up by an Ambassador who generally has a Deputy; in most cases, there is a third Ambassador with responsibility for matters of  EU Foreign Policy.

But even these three representatives can’t do it all. And how do they work together across 27 Member States and cover all the different aspects of EU policy.

Well, when in doubt, look for a committee – but in this case, it’s not just one or two, it is lots of Committees and working parties.

The Council Preparatory Bodies

Yes, that’s what they are called, and there’s a whole long list of them. Their membership varies but in principle, each of them has representatives from all Member States and each of them has representatives from the European Commission. The Member States’ representatives can be diplomats or civil servants who can be based either in the Permanent Representation or in the capital of the Member State. The actual membership of each of these groups is sometimes hard to establish although at the higher levels of these groups the staff lists of the Permanent Representations give relevant information.

And they come in the form of:

  • Committees established by the Treaties
  • One Committee established by intergovernmental Decision
  • Committees established by Council Act
  • Committees relating to specific policy areas

The first three groups warrant a little bit of a closer look.

Committees established by the Treaties

These are Committees which are enshrined in the Treaties which govern the EU and therefore have to exist and to function as set out in the relevant Articles of the Treaties. They are the top level of Council Preparatory Bodies.

The top level of these is called Permanent Representatives Committee (COREPER) and exists in two parts: Part II brings together the Ambassadors of the Member States; Part I brings together the Deputy Ambassadors of the Member States.

Other committees in the category are: the Economic and Financial Committee, an advisory body established under Article 134 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union; the Employment Committee, also an advisory body and established under Article 150 of the same Treaty; both of them advise both the Council of the European Union and the European Commission.

Then there is the Trade Policy Committee (which has a number of subgroups); it ‘assists the European Commission in the negotiation of trade agreements and advises the Commission on the common commercial policy’[1].

The Political and Security Committee (PSC) brings together the Ambassadors of theMemberStatesresponsible for EU foreign policy issues;

The Standing Committee on Operational Cooperation on Internal Security (COSI) is established under Article 71 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

The Social Protection Committee is established under Article 160 of the same Treaty. It also operates as an advisory body to both the Council of the European Union and the European Commission.

In all cases, the establishing Article sets out the purpose of the Committee.

The one and only Committee established by Intergovernmental Decision is the Special Committee on Agriculture. The purpose of this committee is to prepare decisions of the Agriculture Council (i.e. the Council of the European Union constellation dealing with agriculture).

Committees Established by Council Act

  • The EU Military Committee (EUMC) which governs the military aspects of the Common Security and Defence Policy
  • The Committee for Civilian Aspects of Crisis Management (CIVCOM) which is responsible for the civilian aspects of the Common Security and Defence Policy
  • The Economic Policy Committee
  • The Financial Services Committee
  • The Security Committee

Groups closely associated with the Permanent Representatives Committee (COREPER)

The Antici Group; this is named after its Italian founder and is responsible for deciding on the organization of COREPER II proceedings.

The Mertens Group; this fulfills the same role for COREPER I as the Antici group fulfills for COREPER II.

The Friends of the Presidency Group which appears to have a wide remit; I have found lots of references to it on the internet but nothing that would detail its role or terms of reference or membership.

Other Groups

Counsellors/Attachés meet, though again, it is not clear what their specific remit is (the implication is that this is a meeting which is not specifically policy related).

Policy Related Committees and Groups

There are a long list of Committees and Groups which work on specific issues relating to different policy areas. There are too many to list here but the following is a summary:

Policy Area

Number of bodies

General Affairs


Foreign Affairs (including Development Cooperation)


Economic and Financial Affairs


Justice and Home Affairs


Agriculture and Fisheries


Competitiveness (Internal Market, Industry, Research and Space)




Employment/Social Policy/Health and Consumer Affairs








The total number is far smaller than the number of such groups that gets bandied about in discussion about the workings of the Council of the European Union. But 143 is still substantial. Add to this all the groups set out above and not in the table (another 18). If each of the groups has a minimum of one representative from each Member State and one representative from the European Commission, then the minimum number of people meeting and discussing important  (if detailed) policy issues at EU level, all of which contribute to decision making, is somewhere in the order of 4500.

So who are these decision-makers?

Most of these people are diplomats or civil servants of the Member States. So they haven’t been elected but they have been appointed through the relevant mechanisms of the governments of the Member States. So who are they? And how can you find out?

Public information about all of this is a bit thin on the ground. The list of groups is public. It gives an overview of the types of things that get discussed in these groups. It has quite substantial footnotes relating to decisions which led to the formation of the groups and so some of the background and context can be traced.

There is no list of the members of all of these groups. Tracking them down is possible in some cases from the staff lists of the Permanent Representations. But they aren’t that easy to come by either. The list of the Permanent Representations can be accessed via the Council of the European Union website. But they do not all provide helpful links to the roles of staff. So it is then necessary to find the website of each Permanent Representation which is not always straightforward. And even once on their website, the information about who does what is not that straightforward. They don’t necessarily say who represents them on which of these groups. And if the representative of a Member State on a group is not based in Brussels, they wouldn’t be on that list at all.

There is, of course, another way to get at the information. If you know which of the groups you are interested in, you can try to get the name of the relevant official from the government of the Member State in question. If you are a voting citizen of that country, this should be possible, either directly by approaching the government department concerned or by asking a Member of Parliament (at national level) to find out for you.

And why is it important to know?

All decisions made by the Council of the European Union are made, in the end, at the level of government ministers. But clearly they can’t deal with all the detail, so many decisions are pre-digested at different levels of working groups and committees and put to ministers for approval on the basis that agreement has been reached at a lower level.

And we all know that often the devil is in the detail and that it is therefore important that there is at least the potential for transparency of the decision-making at that (lower) level.

It is important to be able to ask people who know (because they were there) why certain decisions were made in the way they were made.

To do that, it is necessary to know who the decision-makers really are. It is good that the detail is dealt with at a level where people hopefully have both the expertise and the time to delve into the detail. But if they have no real accountability because they are well shielded from public view, do they have enough of an incentive to make all their decisions on the basis of a commonly accepted basis of what the ‘common good’ is? Or can national, sectoral, and industry interests sway such decisions – maybe for the better, maybe for the worse – but often unnoticed and unchallenged.

[1] Council of the European Union, List of Council Preparatory Bodies, 11903/11, 22 June 2011, accessed at: on 17 January 2012, p. 4, footnote 3


About Martina Weitsch

Martina worked for Quaker Council for European Affairs as one of two Joint Representatives from 2002 to October 2012. Her main areas of work were the EU role in Palestine/Israel, EU peacebuilding, conflict prevention and crisis management, EU finances, democratic accountability and relations with the European Investment Bank.
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