Tuesday 11 May 2010

The secret five - observations on the COSI meeting of 30 April 2010

COSI, the Standing Committee on operational cooperation on internal security, has met on 30 April to discuss issues like the protection of the EU's external borders or the cooperation between the internal security agencies of the EU.

What we see in the summary of discussions of the meeting is that the public is not trusted to know what the committee is working on in detail.

Take the summary of agenda item 5:
"The meeting reached consensus on the Presidency proposal (doc. 8852/10 COSI 24 ASIM 48 FRONT 57 COMIX 321) regarding the involvement of COSI in the implementation of 5 out of the 29 measures set out in the above-mentioned Council Conclusions. The COSI Support Group was invited to submit to the next COSI meeting concrete proposals for COSI's involvement in the identified measures and delegations were invited to indicate their willingness to participate in the elaboration and implementation of these proposals."
In this summary, we are directed to a non-public "Presidency proposal" (I've added the link) that seems to give guidance on how to deal with 29 measures proposed by the Council in February (see the Council conclusions).

But instead of telling us which are the 5 of the 29 measures to will be dealt with, COSI keeps it secret from us.

In other words: The ministers have agreed on a public list of 29 measures regarding FRONTEX, but the non-elected officials sitting in COSI keep secret from us what they are doing with these measures. Brilliant!


martinned said...

Don't you think you're being a little harsh here? Maybe the fit between the actions of the ministers and the working group isn't quite right, but I'd imagine that is as likely the fault of the ministers as of the working group. After all, as any Eurocrat will tell you, you should never let a minister/commissioner/MEP do anything unless it is absolutely necessary. Matters work more smoothly if they get their talking points and votes already neatly prepared for them.

In general, I can see why they would want to keep such security issues classified. Can't you?

Julien Frisch said...

My point is the following:

The ministers have agreed on a set of 29 measures, very likely prepared by the same national and European officials that continue dealing with that matter afterwards.

However, in a second step there is a decision that not all 29 measures are worth considering, and we are not told which. We even don't know whether this just concerns consideration in COSI or whether this means that the other 24 measures are on hold or totally ignored.

Why should the measures be public but not the choice which of these 29 are tackled (either first or at all)? If the ministers thought the measures were too sensitive for the public to know they could have kept all 29 secret.

They don't even need to tell what the concrete detailed steps are that they want to take regarding the individual measures if that would counteract their strategy, but it should be public why a public decision of the ministers is altered or adapted afterwards, at least on the same level of publicness of the initial decision.

martinned said...

I got that, but my point was that maybe it was the ministers who got it wrong originally, in making the list of 29 public. After all, politicians are not generally very good at keeping secrets, and they tend to be sensitive to pressure from certain people (ahum) for more transparency.

There is no reason to believe that the people who sit in COSI are the same people who also have the minister's ear. The former would tend to be Brussels REPER staffers, while the latter would more likely be national officials, specifically ministers' cabinets, etc.

While I have no special knowledge of this dossier, my impression of it would be one of backtracking with regard to the amount of disclosure here. The members of COSI probably think there has been too much openness in such a critical area, so they're using their re-evaluation of priorities as a useful moment for increasing the level of secrecy involved.

Then again, we should never completely rule out incompetence as an explanation, certainly not in Brussels...

Julien Frisch said...

So we obviously disagree on two different issues:

a) I think transparency is an intrinsic value of democratic process.

b) Elected politicians should not be overruled by unelected officials, because the former are responsible to the public through elections, the latter aren't.

Or maybe I'm reading too much into your arguments... ;-)

martinned said...

a) It is, but in an area such as this one, it understandably takes a back seat.

b) They shouldn't, but to the extent that civil servants are deputised by their national governments (= elected officials) to follow up on the earlier Council decision, there is no need for them to rigidly hang on to the earlier decision. They looked at the list of measures, decided which 5 to tackle first, and then used their own judgement to decide how secret all of this should be. If the elected officials don't like this, they can change it.

This is not an issue of separation of powers, where it is important that everybody sticks to their role. Exactly because the elected officials are at the top of the tree, the civil servants can use their own judgement, within the mandate they've been given. If their superiors don't like it, it can always be undone.

P.S. I appreciate you responding to me like this. In my experience reading other blogs on a wide variety of topics, a good blog is more than "a great resource", it tends to have a community of readers who discuss the posts with each other and with the blogger, making it interactive instead of strictly one-way. That is the one thing that your otherwise excellent blog seems to be missing.

Julien Frisch said...

It is probably because I am not a good commentator on my own blog. There are three reasons for that:

1) I have quite an eclectic approach to blogging and usually after a day or two I'm already looking for new topics, although there are some topics that come up frequently. Commenting on past posts feels like going back instead of forward (although that may be wrong). It's probably also the frequency with which I blog that isn't very favourably for debates to emerge, older posts "disappear" to quickly for discussions to emerge.

2) I myself am more a fan of inter-blog discussions than intra-blog discussions. Long discussions in the comments may be very fruitful but they aren't very visible for the outside world, those who are just following the posts. I prefer to make the discussions visible, also to direct my readers to other blogs that are much more capable to write about certain topics than I am.

3) I don't try to be right just for the sake of it. I have an opinion but I don't think I have a monopoly on being right. So often when people react on my posts with their opinion I just accept it.

But I still don't mind a good argument from time to time. :-)

maybe said...

I'm appreciate your writing skill.Please keep on working hard.^^

martinned said...

Re 2): I guess the visibility problem depends on where your readers would expect the interesting bits to appear. In that respect, it doesn't help that the blogger platform does not really encourage arguments in the comments, since the layout is difficult to read and follow.

But think of the old Wallström blog. I think we can all agree that the actual posts she made there were beyond uninteresting, since they hardly ever went into anything of substance. (Not to mention that there was maybe one post per week, at the most.) The interesting part was the more or less permanently ongoing comment war between europhiles and eurosceptics in the comments sections. Those tended to simply continue from one post to another, simply picking up where the previous thread left off. I participated in that discussion for a while, before I got bored with it, and I would definitely say that the comments section was where "the meat" of that blog was.

The blog I linked to earlier, Volokh, is the perfect balance between the two. It is written by a number of excellent legal scholars, generally right of centre (in the US). Also, their blog is widely read and commented by right of centre law scholars, lawyers, etc. So when I read something there, I immediately click to the comments, to see the "conservative response". Those comments give me a sense of how much the political point made in the original post is shared by conservatives generally, or - in the case of a real law post - the comments help me figure out if there are any shortcomings in the argument. When it comes to scholarly law posts, the combined knowledge and response of all their readers represents an instant "stress-test". If there are any flaws in the argument, someone will usually point them out within the first 10-20 comments. (Posts regularly receive 200-300 comments, especially the political ones.)

Julien Frisch said...

I never read comment wars.

They usually happen just for the sake of having a discussion, just ideological nonsense. They tend to bury what is important and relevant and they cost time that I prefer spending on research, either for my own work or for the blog.