What Are Trilogues?

Introduction

    Trilogues are informal negotiations within the European Union (EU)’s ordinary legislative procedure (OLP). They are interinstitutional informal negotiations for the adoption of EU legislation. Trilogues play a significant role in shaping EU legislation through compromise and agreement. In this blog post, we’ll explore the purpose, participants, rules, and transparency challenges associated with trilogues, shedding light on this essential aspect of the EU’s decision-making process.

    Definition

      Trilogues are informal negotiations in the context of the EU’s OLP. They involve representatives from the European Parliament (EP), the Council, and the European Commission, which has the role of an honest broker. The main purpose of trilogues is to achieve a temporary agreement on a legislative proposal that satisfies both the EP and the Council, who are the co-legislators. Once this provisional agreement is reached, it undergoes the formal adoption process within each of the co-legislators.¹

      The Purpose of Trilogues

        Trilogues are initiated when the European Commission proposes new legislation, but the Council and the EP cannot agree on a joint text. For the legislation to become legally binding, both the Council and the EP must reach a mutual agreement on the proposed text. The primary purpose of trilogues is to achieve a temporary agreement on the text of a legislative proposal that satisfies both the EP and the Council. Once this provisional agreement is reached, it undergoes the formal adoption process within each of the co-legislators. It’s essential to keep in mind that any provisional agreement reached in trilogues is informal and must undergo approval through the formal procedures of each institution. In the EP, the text of the provisional agreement needs to be voted on in committee, and once approved, it is confirmed in the plenary session.²

        Participants

          As already mentioned before, trilogue meetings consist of representatives from three institutions: the European EP, the Council, and the European Commission. These meetings are led by either the EP or the Council, with the European Commission acting as an intermediary to bridge the gap between the co-legislators. The Commission’s role in trilogue negotiations is usually described as that of an ‘honest broker’ mediating and facilitating discussions between the co-legislators.³

          Each institution appoints negotiators to present their viewpoints and engage in productive discussions. The EP’s negotiating team includes the Chair or Vice-Chair of the relevant committee, the rapporteur, and shadow rapporteurs from different political groups who are eager to participate. On the Council’s side, representatives from the Presidency of the Council of Ministers actively participate in these meetings, ensuring a comprehensive and inclusive approach to the negotiations. The Commission also plays a role by providing assistance and expertise throughout the trilogue meetings.⁴

          Technical and Political Layers of Trilogue 

            Different layers of trilogue practices could be distinguished: political trilogues, technical trilogues and an additional level involving bilateral meetings involving political and technical staff from the EP and the Council. These three levels occur simultaneously, sometimes overlap, and are characterized by continuous interaction.⁵

            Technical trilogue (also known as technical meeting): This layer of trilogue focuses on the technical aspects of the ordinary legislative file, which covers the formulation of the political agreement reached in the political trilogues. Representatives of the EP, the Council and the Commission participate in these discussions at a technical level. Typically trilogue negotiations start with an initial meeting at a purely technical level. During this phase, meeting dates are established, points of agreement and disagreement among the co-legislators are pinpointed, and agendas are formulated. The primary purpose of technical meetings usually revolves around enabling staff from all three institutions to compare the mandates of the EP and the Council, highlighting key inconsistencies on an article-by-article basis. These differences are then reconciled during political trilogues. Technical meetings are often repeated after each political trilogue and are used as preparatory meetings to document the compromises reached during the political trilogues. While political matters can be discussed within technical meetings, they are generally limited to topics on which there is already agreement between the institutions. ⁶

            Political trilogue: This layer of trilogue focuses on the political aspects of the regular legislative file and involves the participation of political representatives of the EP, the Council and the Commission. Political trilogues are meetings when ‘real’ negotiations take place. They are the main point for substantive negotiations and forging compromises on controversial issues.⁷

            The frequency of trilogue meetings and the order in which technical meetings and political trilogues occur can vary between different legislative dossiers. The difference between negotiations at the technical and political level affects the extent of institutional representation. For example, during technical trilogues, the Commission is usually represented at the level of the Head of Unit, accompanied by the responsible officer and the legal service. In contrast, political trilogues are more likely to involve directors, director generals or even Commissioners, especially when an agreement is coming to an end.⁸

            Governing Rules and Established Practices

              Trilogues are not explicitly mentioned in the EU Treaties, but their institutional practice has been codified through joint declarations and interinstitutional agreements. Recognizing their importance, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has acknowledged trilogues as critical phases of the legislative process, even without explicit reference in the Treaties. Past Court decisions have clarified that institutional practices, including trilogues, can be relied upon as long as they adhere to Treaty rules (for example, refer to Case C-409/13 and Case T-540/15).

              During the negotiations, participants follow the Code of Conduct for negotiating in the context of the OLP, established by the Conference of Presidents (Rule 70). Each institution appoints its representatives for the trilogues based on its own rules of procedure. The negotiations center around a joint document commonly referred to as the “four-column” document. This document outlines the positions of the three institutions involved and any compromise text that has been provisionally agreed upon. As negotiations progress, the document undergoes constant revision, particularly the fourth column containing the compromise text. The reporting process varies, with the rapporteur or the chair of the negotiating team providing updates to the responsible committee or if needed, the committee coordinators.

              The provisional agreement reached by the co-legislators is confirmed through an exchange of letters between the co-chairs and is then formally approved by the Council and the EP plenary. The final legislative act, a product of joint effort, is celebrated with a joint press conference, and the presidents of both the EP and the Council sign the final text at a joint ceremony.

              Types of Agreements – Trilogue Outcomes¹⁰

                Trilogue negotiations can lead to different types of agreements, such as:

                • First Reading Agreement: This agreement is reached before EP’s first reading, based on a committee report or without a committee decision. The majority of legislation is adopted during the first reading.
                • Early Second Reading Agreement: These negotiations occur after EP’s first reading but before the Council’s first reading, based on EP’s first-reading position.
                • Second Reading Agreement: These negotiations take place after both EP and the Council have adopted their first readings. The mandate relies on EP’s first-reading position without the need for further approval in plenary.
                • Joint Text during Conciliation: In cases of persistent disagreements, even after the second reading, conciliation proceedings may occur, resulting in a joint text. Conciliation involves representatives from both the EP and the Council working together to find common ground.

                Important: Don’t confuse informal trilogue meetings with formal conciliation committee meetings! Trilogues and conciliation aim to reach provisional agreements or joint texts, respectively, with representation from the EP, the Council, and the Commission. However, there are differences between them. In conciliation, the EP’s negotiating team includes the Chair of the conciliation delegation, the Chair of the parliamentary committee, the rapporteur, and additional Members. The Council is represented by the responsible Minister or Chair of Coreper I or II, along with representatives from each Member State. The Commission is represented by the responsible Commissioner or Director-General. These distinct roles and compositions make conciliation committee meetings a formal and structured phase in the legislative process, unlike trilogue meetings.

                Transparency Challenges¹¹

                  EU institutions are obligated to conduct their work as openly as possible, with public meetings held by the EP and the Council, especially during deliberations and votes on draft legislative acts. Moreover, the institutions are required to publish documents related to legislative procedures, granting citizens and EU residents access to these documents. However, despite these efforts, trilogues continue to be a point of concern regarding transparency. The informal nature of trilogue meetings, taking place outside formal decision-making channels and behind closed doors, hinders the ability to accurately review the negotiations. Striking a balance between the need for transparency and the flexibility necessary for successful negotiations remains a challenge.

                  Example of trilogue meeting: The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

                    The GDPR was proposed by the European Commission to unify data protection for individuals within the European Union (EU) and to address the export of personal data outside the EU. It aimed to give control back to citizens over their personal data and to simplify the regulatory environment for international business. The proposal for the GDPR¹² was released by the Commission on January 25, 2012. The European Parliament and the Council examined the text, each proposing amendments.

                    Following the amendments, trilogue negotiations began. The meetings involved representatives from the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs Committee (LIBE), the Council, and the Commission.

                    During these trilogue discussions, a balance was sought between personal privacy and the free flow of data for businesses. The Commission’s initial proposal can be found in its press release¹³, and the positions of the Parliament and the Council were respectively based on their amendments.

                    A provisional agreement on the GDPR was reached during the trilogue meetings, as reported in the Commission’s press release¹⁴ on December 15, 2015. The agreed text included compromises on several contentious issues, such as the level of fines, conditions for consent, and data transfer rules outside the EU.

                    The provisional agreement was then confirmed through the legislative procedures of the European Parliament and the Council:

                    • In the EP: The LIBE committee endorsed the agreement, followed by a vote in the plenary session, where the text was approved.
                    • In the Council: The Council adopted the GDPR at the first reading, as noted in the Council’s press release.¹⁵

                    The regulation (EU) 2016/679 (GDPR) was signed on April 27, 2016, by the Presidents of the EP and the Council and published in the Official Journal of the EU on May 4, 2016.

                    The GDPR came into force on May 25, 2018, after a two-year transition period, allowing Member States and businesses to prepare for the new rules. The adoption of the GDPR is a concrete example of the EU’s legislative process involving trilogue negotiations. It demonstrates how trilogue meetings facilitate compromise and consensus between the EU institutions to finalize legislation, with transparency enhanced by the availability of documents and press releases outlining the progress and content of negotiations.

                    Conclusion

                      In conclusion, trilogues are a practical solution the European Union uses to iron out the wrinkles in new legislation. It’s like a negotiation table where representatives from the European Parliament, and the Council come together to hash out their differences and find a middle ground, while the European Commission acts like a mediator. This process is crucial because it allows for a faster agreement on laws that affect the entire EU.

                      The thing is, trilogues happen behind the scenes, which makes them a bit of a black box for the public. But even if we don’t see all the details, this process is how a lot of important EU policies get shaped. Take the GDPR, for example. This major piece of legislation was shaped by trilogue discussions, demonstrating that despite the closed-door aspect, trilogues can deliver results.

                      Although transparency remains a challenge, it’s clear that trilogues are an important part of the EU’s legislative toolkit. They help bring together different viewpoints to create laws that work across all member states. 

                      ¹ https://eur-lex.europa.eu/EN/legal-content/glossary/trilogue.html
                      ²https://www.europarl.europa.eu/olp/en/interinstitutional-negotiations
                      ³ https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13501763.2020.1859597
                      ⁴https://www.europarl.europa.eu/olp/en/interinstitutional-negotiations
                      ⁵https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2021/690614/EPRS_BRI(2021)690614_EN.pdf
                      ⁶https://www.eesc.europa.eu/sites/default/files/files/qe-01-17-783-en-n.pdf
                      ⁷https://www.eesc.europa.eu/sites/default/files/files/qe-01-17-783-en-n.pdf
                      ⁸https://www.eesc.europa.eu/sites/default/files/files/qe-01-17-783-en-n.pdf
                      ⁹https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2021/690614/EPRS_BRI(2021)690614_EN.pdf
                      ¹⁰https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2021/690614/EPRS_BRI(2021)690614_EN.pdf and https://www.europarl.europa.eu/olp/en/interinstitutional-negotiations
                      ¹¹https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2021/690614/EPRS_BRI(2021)690614_EN.pdf
                      ¹²https://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=COM:2012:0011:FIN:en:PDF
                      ¹³ https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_12_46
                      ¹⁴https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_15_6321
                      ¹⁵https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=consil%3AST_5419_2016_INIT