Trilogues 101

Date: 27, March 2019
In recent months, we have been writing on key legislations for the transport sector, entering trilogues negotiations. But what is a trilogue negotiation? And which role does it play in the EU decision-making process? The following article will answer those exact question and form a short introduction to the nature of EU trilogues.

EU trilogues are tripartite meetings between the Parliament, Council and Commission. They form an inter-institutional link between the three institutions and are used as a means to find a common agreement on most legislative acts adopted by the means of Co-Decision (COD/OLP). This covers all road transport related issues, except for taxation, such as energy taxation. Trilogues feature on nearly all legislative proposals adopted by COD and they will officially start, once both the Parliament and the Council, have adopted their general approach on a proposal. But before Council and Parliament have formally adopted their first reading positions.

 Trilogues increased in usage up through the 90’s and with the Treaty of Amsterdam in 2001 became a stable in decision-making, as the possibility for 1st reading adoption was introduced with it.

The trilogues were invented, as a means to solve the legislative inefficiency spawned by the accession of new MS in 2004 and the ever-growing EU policy area. The objective was to facilitate quicker adoption of EU legislation.

The immediate result of trilogues is that 75% of EU legislation is adopted in “early agreements (1st or early 2nd hearing)”, reducing the time taken to adopt legislation. However, according to some observers this increased efficiency comes at a democratic price, as trilogues negotiations are conducted behind closed doors with virtually no information being published. There is an ongoing discussion on the issue of trilogues and the democratic deficit resulting of them, but it will not be addressed here as it would constitute an article in itself. What is clear though is that the increasing use of trilogues sets new demands also for public affairs and lobbying efforts in Brussels.

The different institutions play different roles in trilogues, the following is a brief outline of their roles.

  • The Commission: The Commission has the role of mediator between the two legislators and is to act as a neutral player. This neutrality is disputed by some, as the Commission could be in the interest of protecting its legislative proposal.
  • The Parliament: The Parliament is represented by the Rapporteur, sometimes Shadow-Rapporteurs and the Committee chair or vicechair. The Parliament forms, as co-legislator, one side of the negotiations with the Council forming the other. The Rapporteur will negotiate on the mandate given to him/her by the given committee.
  • The Council: The Council is headed by the rotating presidency (Romania at present) and civil servants of the Council (COREPER I & II). Working on a mandate from the Council or COREPER, the rotating Presidency will negotiate with the Parliament.

The inter-institutional power balance tends to vary from file to file and depends on the abilities of the Rapporteur and the rotating presidency, yet as in most other EU-affairs the MS and thus the Council holds greater power. MS not holding the rotating presidency may also interfere in the negotiations.

Working on a mandate, both co-legislator’s representatives may deviate from their given mandate. Studies show that, indeed both the Parliament and the Council representative tend to deviate more than minimally required to reach an agreement, which ceteris paribus indicates that the representatives in trilogues have some autonomy. Nevertheless, studies also show that the “size” of the MS holding the presidency does not affect its ability to reach an agreement closer to their mandate.

The number and frequency of trilogues meetings vary from file to file. Determines of the frequency of trilogues include length of the proposal, level of critique of the rapporteur’s report by other MEPs and rapporteur’s political party-size. The trilogue meeting itself might often go on for multiple hours and long into the night in order to find an agreement and there exists no formal deadlines for trilogues negotiations.

By pushing most legislations into an early agreement, trilogues have also affected the work carried out by interest groups. The shortening of the time taken to adopt legislation, has narrowed the window of opportunity for interest groups. The possibility of affecting decision makers when legislative proposals enter into trilogues is clearly much more complicated and limited when trilogues are underway. However, at this point a serious stakeholder would not need to exert influence as it is already before the Commission proposes legislation that one’s effort are the most effective.

Kasper Trier Jørgensen, March 2019.