The EU Commission less transparent about governments’ compliance due to Euroscepticism

Guillaume Perigois
Guillaume Perigois

Transparency of government activities lies at the heart of democratic and legitimate political systems, as it enables citizens to observe deviations from the public interest. Therefore, a key question for the legitimacy of international institutions is whether they are transparent. In a recent study, I analyzed the extent to which the EU Commission reveals and disseminates information about EU member states’ compliance with EU legislation.  I found that EU Commission is transparent most of the time. Although, the EU is taking steps in the right direction my analysis suggests that we should not be overly optimistic.

In the past years, the EU has taken enormous strides towards improving the transparency of its institutions. Key EU instruments oblige the EU to share information with individuals who request internal documents held at the EU institutions. Arguably, these rules should alleviate concerns about the EU’s democratic deficit.

The Commission faces a dilemma between pressures for transparency and preserving amicable relations with national governments

I have analyzed the extent to which the EU Commission reveals and disseminates information about member states’ compliance with EU legislation. The EU Commission is the main supranational enforcement institution and as such it collects extensive information about the implementation of European policies in all member states of the Union. On the one hand, we could expect that the EU Commission publishes (non-)compliance data to justify its enforcement decisions to wider European publics. On the other hand, information about non-compliance could be sensitive. Governments that fail to fulfill their European obligations may not enjoy having their policy gaps exposed to wider audiences. For example, the Commission could refuse access to data if this will negatively affect the mutual trust and cooperation with national governments.

So, does the EU’s enforcement institution publicly disclose information about member states’ (non-)compliance with EU legislation?

Focusing on four policy areas, I find that the EU Commission is transparent most of the time (at least to some extent). The majority of compliance reports are either published at the website of the relevant Commissioner  (“public disclosure”) or shared upon request (“limited disclosure”). This is good news for the advocates of more transparency in the European institutions

Less public disclosure of compliance data on environment and migration policies

However, we should not be overly optimistic about the transparency of data held by the EU Commission.

First, there are clear differences across issue areas. The Commission is less transparent about government compliance with policies related to the environment and home affairs (e.g., immigration and asylum policies). Conversely, reports about social (e.g., anti-discrimination in the employment sector and equality) and economic policies (financial and internal market legislation) are more likely to be published. Thus, European citizens are less likely to learn how governments implement EU environmental quality standards than about government actions related to gender equality. In 2017, the environmental charity organization ClientEarth even sent a complaint to the European Ombudsman that the Commission had refused to share compliance data with environmental laws.

Less transparency of compliance data on Eurosceptic countries

Second, the Commission is more likely to disclose compliance data about governments that are supportive of the EU. This is less for Eurosceptic governments and when citizens oppose European integration.  For example, there are higher chances to find out about compliance practices in Belgium and Greece than in Sweden and the United Kingdom, which are more Eurosceptic. One explanation is the Commission does not want to further antagonize its critics.

At the same time, such instances of selective information disclosure raise concerns about the legitimacy of the EU Commission. They suggest that the Commission could become less transparent if public support for European integration decreases. Paradoxically, however, lack of transparency would further exacerbate the image of the EU in the eyes of European citizens. It would give ammunition to anti-EU elites across Europe to challenge the powers of the Commission on the grounds that it is not democratic. Arguably, this is not what a legitimacy-seeking institution like the Commission should strive to achieve.

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Dr. Asya Zhelyazkova is the lead investigator of The legitimacy crisis of international political systems. This research group is part of the strategic pillar Global Social Challenges.