EU law-making in the shadow of the CJEU case law: looking at the “trilogue” black box

istock-506815322-europe-flag-picDr Albert Sanchez-Graells explores the influence of CJEU case law in EU law-making.

After six decades of economic and legal integration, when the European Union (EU) seeks to adopt new rules or to revise existing ones, it hardly ever operates on a clean slate. EU law-making is not only constrained by the political and economic realities of the time, but also by the pre-existing acquis communautaire of rules and general principles as interpreted by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). By any account, the CJEU has been a great force in the development of EU law, and its case law has pushed the policy-making agenda in rather clear, if controversial ways. EU law-makers thus operate in the shadow of the CJEU case law. This influences law-makers’ starting points and conditions the final solutions to be politically agreed, which will unavoidably be open to scrutiny (and quashing) by the CJEU.

In that space amongst the shadows of the CJEU case law, EU law-makers interact in an increasingly informal manner. They seek ways of flexibilising the legislative process so as to achieve easier and swifter compromises and overcome the criticism of immobilism, sometimes at the cost of renewed criticism of a democratic deficit that the Lisbon Treaty aimed to do away with. Indeed, even if the ordinary legislative procedure is heavily regulated by the EU Treaties and should channel most of the EU’s law-making, informal EU law-making is on the rise. As recently as July 2016, this led the European Ombudsman to call for more transparency of informal negotiations between the European Commission, European Parliament and the Council of the EU, also known as “trilogues” meetings.

It is no exaggeration to say that such “trilogues” are the black box of EU law-making. Under their current operation, it is possible to observe what comes in—legislative proposals are published by the Commission and initial reports by both Council and Parliament are also published—and what comes out of it—in the form of legislation eventually published in the Official Journal of the European Union. But, even after carrying out significant research efforts, it is impossible to crack what happens within the black box and to trace the origin and reasons behind important amendments to proposed legislation, as well as the way in which the final text is drafted.

This creates potential legal uncertainty in terms of the likely interpretation of the texts, which sometimes deviate from previous case law of the CJEU in unexplained ways. It also makes for difficult political assessments of the balance of interests that went into EU law-making and the weight that competing EU, national and group interests carried in shaping the new or revised rules. It can also significantly diminish the technical quality of the final rules, particularly where the trilogues are structured in sequence or address issues in a piece meal fashion, which prevents a final check for internal consistency and eventually leads to difficult systematic interpretation issues.

The case study of the reform of the EU public procurement rules in the period 2011-2014 clearly evidences these issues. The results of our two year research project show both that the entirety of the legislative process was influenced by the CJEU case law, and that some of the most remarkable modifications of the pre-existing EU public procurement rules came about in an unexplained way at trilogue stage. As Dr Grith Ølykke and I stress in our conclusions,

The informal part of the procedure taking place between the 2011 Proposal and the first reading and adoption of the 2014 Directive prevented a repetition of the lengthy process of adopting the 2004 Directive (four years and a full-fledged ordinary legislative procedure, several amended proposals, conciliation and all). However, the early retreat to the trilogue and, hence, informality, significantly reduced transparency compared to that available in the legislative procedure leading to the adoption of the 2004 Directive, where e.g. the amended proposals contain the Commission’s argumentation for accepting proposed amendments or not.

… this still does not clarify the role and influence of the Commission in the post-Lisbon trilogue … Indeed, as stressed by the [European] Parliament itself, ‘given the Commission’s important and active role during Council working party (and even COREPER) discussions, its status as “honest broker” during trilogue negotiations is sometimes questioned in practice’.

A close analysis of the results of our research project helps gain a better understanding of the influence of the CJEU case law in EU law-making, both shaping it and as a benchmark from which policy-makers sometimes try very hard to deviate. However, the results of the research project also stress the limitations of an analysis of the travaux preparatoires and the negotiations throughout the legislative process when important changes and their reasons cannot be observed because they took place in the trilogue black box.

These insights will be interesting in guiding legal interpretive efforts, both in the area of EU public procurement law and more broadly. They will also be high quality and detailed evidence of the need to reform the way trilogues operate, both from a perspective of ensuring high standards of governance through accountability and transparency as stressed by the European Ombudsman, as well as from the perspective of preserving the value of interpretive aids in the context of an ever increasingly complex acquis communautaire.

Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells is Senior Lecturer in Law  at University of Bristol Law School, UK


Reformation or Deformation of the EU Public Procurement Rules edited by Grith Skovgaard Ølykke and Albert Sanchez-Graells is available now.

Read Chapter 1: The EU legislative process. An introduction from a political science perspective free on Elgaronline.

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