The 15 men who run Europe on our behalf

EU/ the real decision-makers
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT HAS been a long, gruelling week at The Consilium. "The most knackering ever," said one battle-worn diplomat, emerging from this giant new slab of European architecture. Along the pavement passers-by stare dumbfounded, wondering what this "Consilium" might be.

Inside the building's cavernous meeting rooms an elite group of amabassadors have been working against the clock to prepare for next week's European summit of EU heads of state in Cannes. They have been narrowing down the options for a European police force, deciding on the money to be spent on foreign aid and formulating new decrees on a range of issues to benefit the citizens of Europe. It was high-class diplomatic poker and all the greatest Brussels intellects were there: Sir John Kerr (Britain), Dietrich Von Kyaw (Germany) and Pierre de Boissieu (France) to name but three. "Without us," said one senior ambassador, "the machinery of European government would collapse." Yet who has heard of any of these players? Who has heard of Coreper - the name their unelected club adopts? Who knows what really happens inside the Consilium Justus Lipsius, the new European Council building, named after a Dutch stoic philosopher?

The hydra of European government is constantly reproducing, to the consternation of anyone who tries to comprehend. Leaders proclaim the need to simplify and open up their institutions. At the Cannes summit they will pledge to become more accountable and forge new contacts with the ordinary citizen. Yet even as they speak their methods become ever more opaque - as the growing power of Coreper affirms.

Coreper, the French acronymn for Committee of Permanent Representatives, is made up of the 15 ambassadors who are the emissaries to the EU of each member state. Coreper is charged with preparing the groundwork for the meetings of the EU council of ministers, the foremost legislative body of the union. This legislation is proposed by the European Commission, the executive bureacracy, with a small degree of oversight from the European parliament. It is the ministers, sitting in council, who theoretically take the final decisions. Because the ministers are answerable to their national parliaments these decisions are held to be democratically accountable. Increasingly, however, decisions are being delegated to the Coreper officials.

As the EU workload has mushroomed, so ministers have found themselves less and less able - or willing - to tackle the details of their dossiers, leaving Coreper to pre-cook many of the deals and set perameters of debate. The problem has been seriously exacerbated since the Maastricht treaty of 1992 which brought new powers to Brussels.

Senior officials in Brussels say that in the field of foreign policy particularly the ministerial control of many key decisions has been reduced to rubber stamping. "They are little more than rituals," said one Brussels diplomat. But it is not that ministers do not have time. They shy away from the complexity of Brussels policy-making. At last week's foreign affairs council the morning was spent on ceremonial business. After a "working coffee" a little less than three hours was spent on substantial business. A contentious dispute over how to share funding for Mediterranean countries with cash for Eastern Europe had largely been solved on paper for them by Coreper. A working dinner was scrapped and the ministers flew home.

"Ministers are not stupid but do not have as much time as we do. They cannot penetrate the detail of their dossiers," said one Coreper ambassador last week. "Coreper are nowadays to a very high degree the decision makers. Not in a political sense but in a real sense," said a senior Brussels official. Decision-making in the EU is about achieving compromises between the member states trying to achieve a common position without prejudicing the national interest. Those compromises are won through trade- offs over an increasingly wide span of policy areas. Ministers and officials in the capitals may know their individual dossiers. But Coreper, which filters every policy decision, sees right across the board. In the run-up to Cannes, for example, Britain is resisting strong demands from other member states for the European Court of Justice to oversee the operation of Europol. A role for the court would be federalist, the government believes. Britain is also refusing to pay new aid money to Third World countries. Sitting in Coreper, Sir John is reported to be contemplating a deal. He may win French backing for his position on Europol, by offering a compromise on the aid package.

Had member states decided to pool sovereignty in a federal system, fully accountable to a European parliament, these secret inter-governmental negotiations would not be necessary. But such explanations hardly chime with Brussels talk of greater citizens' rights and accountability.

To open up the body to the cameras or the press would simply push the diplomats further into the bowels of their building, spawning new and more obscure cabals. Already the massive new meeting rooms are so big that the ambassadors complain they "can't see the whites of the other man's eyes".

Open discussion even within Coreper is already becoming obselete. So brisk is the business nowadays that "if you're not concentrating you can give away the shop," as a Coreper diplomat put it.

Even the brown granite of "The Consilium" was the result of a Coreper compromise. "Some asked for blue. Some for red. What you got was brown," said an official. And as the ambassadors stride across the austere courtyard the only citizens they see are their own relections in the Consilium's glass.