Committees of Enquiry in the European Parliament as accountability mechanisms: what are they? how do they operate?

In this post, we examine the committees of enquiry set up by the European Parliament as an accountability mechanism, following the 4-stage theoretical framework on accountability. The framework builds on Bovens’s ‘accountability as social relationship between the account holder (the watchdog) and the accountable body (the subject)’ theoretical framework, and examines the legal framework binding both subjects in the relationship, as well as the intrainstitutional mechanisms that constrain their willingness to hold to account or, alternatively, be held to account. In doing so, we take into account four dimensions: transparency, reporting, questioning, and liability.

Committees of enquiry represent one of the accountability mechanisms allowing the European Parliament to oversee (as “watchdog”) the implementation of EU law and policies. The wording of Article 226 TFEU (the legal base for these committees) does not limit the reach of the EP to EU bodies; thus, any national body can also become the “subject”, provided they are questioned on their involvement in the implementation of EU law [the treaty shapes committees of enquiry “to investigate, without prejudice to the powers conferred by the Treaties on other institutions or bodies, alleged contraventions or maladministration in the implementation of Union law”].

The legal framework governing these committees is found in the above mentioned Article 226 TFEU, complemented with 208 TFEU and the EP Rules of Procedure. Additionally, Decision 95/167/EC of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission of 19 April 1995 offers detailed provisions on the exercise by the EP of its right of inquiry. The shortcomings of the 1995 Decision have prompted the EP to adopt a Regulation establishing a far-reaching remit for the committees of enquiry. A 2012 proposal was rejected by the legal services of both the Commission and the Council on grounds that it exceeded the mandate of Article 226 TFEU. After a number of years of interinstitutional deadlock, it was finally agreed by the three institutions on 10 October 2016 that their respective legal services would meet to find possible common technical clarifications on the pending legal and institutional issues raised by the Council and the Commission. However, the lack of progress suggests however yet another frozen conflict between the Parliament and the Council (alongside the conflict on whether the Parliament can hold to account the Council’s financial management of its own administrative funds), the Commission playing an uncertain role in-between.

The key bone of contention between both institutions seems to be the EP’s right of access to information.  especially when the scope of the projected enquiry goes beyond European affairs and thus the accountable subject will leave the Commission aside and involve the Council or individual Member States. Prominent examples include the PANA (enquiry on money laundering following the publication of the Panama Papers) and EMIS (irregular carbon emissions by vehicules following the Volkswagen scandal) committees.

  • TRANSPARENCY

This accountability dimension measures the publicity of works by the committee (as watchdog) and the subjects. The EP adheres to the publicity rules

  • EXPOSURE

This dimension examines whether the watchdog institution can legally summon the subject to attend an enquiry meeting and whether that subject is legally bound to comply.

The PANA Committee found difficulties to get answers in its Mission to Malta

The EP lacks powers to enforce its right of enquiry against the will of the subject, as shown in the PANA committee. Preparation works in that committee took place through several missions to various countries (EU and non-EU, e.g. USA) but the committee encountered difficulties to obtain answers from certain national officials, who declined EP’s invitation to give testimony (among them, the Maltese PM, the UK Treasury, some Luxembourg tax agency officials). The EP could only reflect their refusal in the concluding report of the 2017 PANA committee.

  • CRITICISM.

This dimension examines whether the watchdog (here, the European Parliament) may issue negative judgement of the subject’s behaviour, and whether the subject can oppose that.

The legal framework of committees of enquiry does not allow a potential contradictory procedure between the EP committee and the subject. Therefore, the subject does not get to monitor or amend the way in which the EP assesses or filters the testimony given by the subject. The subject is overall defenceless against the criticism of the EP committee. The breadth of such criticism will depend notably on the interplay between the committee rapporteur and shadow rapporteur, and how the rest of committee members assess the respective stances of the two of them. As a result, the committee report offering conclusions may offer a softer or tougher judgment on the subject matter of the enquiry.

Meeting of the 1996 Committee of enquiry into the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)

An example of the tougher criticism by the EP is the report of the enquiry committee on the BSE crisis (mad cows disease) determined that responsibility was shared by the UK, the Council and the Commission. The Committee was specially tough on the UK government, who failed to respect the national prohibitive legislation outlawing meat exports, and put pressure on the Commission not to include anything related to the BSE in its general inspections.

  • LIABILITY

Committees of enquiry are not, as such, instruments allowing for the imposition of sanctions against the subject. Their reach is exhausted, strictly speaking, at the ‘criticism’ stage.

Neither the Rules of Procedure, nor the regulation of the European Parliament on the detailed provisions governing the exercise of the European Parliament’s right of inquiry established any provision regarding sanctions.

According to Article 208 of the Rules of Procedure establishes that “a committee of inquiry shall conclude its work by presenting to Parliament a report on the results of its work”. But, the document may only include some recommendations that are not binding, so the institutions and Member States may take them into consideration or not.

The main action that the European Parliament could carry out is to “forward to the institutions or bodies of the Union or to the Member States for transmission to the competent authorities any recommendations which it adopts on the basis of the final report”. As a result of the previous conclusion, the subject´s perspective is clear because it is not obliged to bear the sanctions (capacity) and it does not want to (willingness) due to the fact that there is no sanctions. Nevertheless, although there are not sanctions, the subject may be equally liable if, after the investigation, a Court examines the facts and decides that they deserve a punishment within the realm of law.

Some past enquiries have known substantial follow-up when the conclusions feed into MEP’s discontent in a way that lead to the further imposition of sanctions at the EU or national level. For instance, the process leading to the 1999 collective resignation of the Santer Commission was rooted in the conclusions of the group of independent experts set in the framework of the enquiry rights of the EP.

Committee of Independent Experts presenting the results at the European Parliament (1999).
Photo: Walter Van Gerben Institute.

Background research and analysis for this post was made by Ane Calvo and María Ferruelo, Deusto Law School students.

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