Moves towards openness

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR'S abortive plan for a brief televised public session at today's summit was dismissed privately as a 'gimmick' and 'a public-relations exercise' by officials in Brussels yesterday. It was also strongly opposed by other European Community countries and by Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission, who saw it as irrelevant to moves towards more openness.

In a glasnost-style gesture towards the vexed issue of 'transparency', Mr Major had proposed that each head of government in Birmingham should make a five- minute speech to television cameras. This idea was shelved, and the Council of Ministers will meet behind closed doors as usual to discuss, among other things, how to make the EC more open and accountable.

By contrast, Mr Delors is expected to propose today that the Commission should present its work programme to the Council of Ministers each January. This would be followed by a public debate by the council, allowing a proper airing of the Community's plans. Most EC governments are against such a proposal, but France's President, Francois Mitterrand, is said to be in favour.

The row underlines the suspicion with which Britain is viewed by its EC partners, many of whom feel that the main aim of the summit is to improve the British image. Other member states mistrust Britain's long-term goals, and resent the way Mr Major proposed the public session without consulting them beforehand.

Stanley Crossick, of the Belmont Group, a Brussels consultancy, said: 'We British seem to have a permanent knack of getting it wrong. Transparency is an essential part of subsidiarity - creating a participating society. It follows that you do not separate the moves. It is all . . . one subject. Subsidiarity is to be clarified at the Edinburgh summit in December. The British have jumped at subsidiarity, suggesting it's their idea. It's not. The main champion is Jacques Delors.'

The thorny problem remains of how to make the EC's complex processes more accessible. There is a long-running debate in the Community over how to do this, not just for the media but also for scrutiny by national parliaments. To open up meetings of the Council of Ministers would not necessarily achieve this aim, and might be counterproductive.

Echoing the debate which raged before proceedings of the British Parliament were televised, Mr Delors said yesterday: 'Personally I am not in favour of opening the Council of Ministers. If meetings are made public, every participant will speak with journalists in mind. Dynamic compromises will be harder to find.'

There is also the fear that, if meetings are opened completely, horse-trading will simply happen elsewhere. Germany has recently tried to get round this problem by making its ministers report more closely to their own parliament on what happens in EC meetings.

One EC official said yesterday: 'In the best of all possible worlds, all the ministers should be scrutinised at home. But in practice this doesn't happen. And as soon as you give the European Parliament more powers to scrutinise ministers, members of national parliaments start to object to what they see as turf-grabbing.'

Mr Crossick said: 'If you want to democratise, do it democratically. Have open discussions on what you're going to do, publish papers in advance so that those who want to comment or have an input can do so, and the process is genuinely opened up. Instead of this, papers are being passed round semi-secretly.'