One of the usual attacks on the European Union, is that it is so intransparent. Rules are designed and discussed behind the scenes, nobody knows what’s going on except for some eurocrats, and then the member states have to swallow the Brussels diktat. That’s more or less how the argument goes.

But, is it true? In my journalistic activities, the experience is rather different. With two important exceptions.

Commission: an open house
First, the Commission. With a staff of around 26,000 people (there are various way to count the number of fonctionnaires) and with a range of (big) buildings in Brussels, the lawmaking institute does look a bit like a moloch. The Commission has 33 directorate-generals, plus a number of service bureaus and agencies. It’s hard to quickly find the person/information you are looking for.

Once you get in though, most people are more than willing to talk to you – whether you are a journalist, a lobbyist or a citizen. There even seem to be rules that mails have to be answered within a certain number of days. My questions to the Commission are most of the time quite sensitive but I still found the staff to be helpful. For instance, I wrote some articles on the Telecoms Package, a controversial set of rules that are still under negotiation with the European Parliament and the EU member states. After a request for a ‘state of play’ the spokespersons’ service set up a meeting with a high-level expert, and I could even quote him (without naming him directly). I also talked to the responsible director-general, he replied within half a day at a request and the interview was on the record.

In general, I am really surprised the Commission to be so transparent and straightforward. Most cabinets of Commissioners can be found entirely online, including phone numbers and mail addresses. I have talked to several Commissioners online (via Twitter). And from seasoned diplomats and other EU insiders I always hear that the Commission more or less is an open house – once again, if you manage to click on the right buttons, but that’s just bureaucracy.

European Parliament: a chaotic place, not a fortress
Hardly ever reported on in the national media, the European Parliament is often regarded as just another EU institute full of money-grabbing pricks. They decide on rules over our heads while claiming to be there for the citizens. No wonder only 43% of voters turned out at the last two elections of the European Parliament.

Because it’s so big with 751 members and thousands of staff (a lot of them located in Luxembourg, who knew that), and with two meeting locations – Brussels and Strasbourg – this circus of democracy is not really a glass house. The buildings themselves are a real maze. Only last month did I find out, after two years, how to get from one entrance to the other. And if you do manage to get in, try to get out! You can’t just walk out, certainly not over the blue carpet, then you’ll have a lot of people screaming at you. No, you have to smile at the security guard, and he’ll open the gate for you – but please, give your sticker back or you’ll get scolded again.

On access and transparency: the trouble is not the lack of information, rather the abundance of the stuff. It drives everyone crazy. What doesn’t help is the shitty website of the Parliament. Or the way the political groups work: the main ones are over 200 people big, so good luck finding the right Member of European Parliament (MEP) that actually has a real mandate. For instance on copyright rules, there are different voices on the matter in the Socialists and Democrats Group, ranging from conservative to progressive, or representing a national rather than a European view.

So to find out what’s going on, as an EU Watcher I have to follow ‘Committees’ who have ‘Rapporteurs’ writing ‘Reports’ on Commission proposals. These reports are then heavily amended, sometimes with 4000 amendments (!) and after the Committee votes on them, they can be changed again in the so-called plenary vote. You can also have several Committees talking about the same proposal. Let’s take the reform of the Emissions Trading System, which was set up to put a price on CO2. The Environment Committee and the Trade Committee have a say – but which one is more important?

I can’t go through 4000 amendments, so as a journalist I am susceptible to analyses and spin, produced by the EP groups themselves, lobbyists and other journalists. Further on, the stuff that’s on the table is often highly technical. Free mobile roaming sounds cool, but then you hit the wall when MEPs start talking about ‘wholesale access pricing’, ‘the BEREC report on RLAH+’, ‘network circumstances’ and other things that sound super boring but are in the end, super relevant. European integration is in the end about merging 28 different systems.

But by and large, if you take enough time to delve into a subject, you can get the hang of it and pull out some red threads, sticking points and other political issues that can be communicated to a larger audience. What does not help is that MEPs are overwhelmed by the work load and the constant travelling between Brussels, Strasbourg and their home countries. I find it annoying that on many occasions, the MEPs do not respond to requests for interviews. With one Austrian parliamentarian, our interview was moved three times in the agenda, and when I finally got to speak to him, he had one (1) minute. Not very helpful.

Black box 1: The Council
Commission: quite open. Parliament: quite chaotic. Council – the conglomeration of diplomats and government experts from the 28 – member states: quite a black box.

The two federalist institutes of Commission and Parliament have a tendency to be pro-European, constantly proposing European solutions for the many problems we face – be they economic, social or political. For those who do not like this continuous churning of  European laws, they have a protecting mechanism: the Council.

The Council is about the only institute you’ll see on the tv news. It’s right opposite the Berlaymont building, which is the headquarter of the Commission. This is where the heads of governments meet several times a year, and where deals are struck on salvaging Greece, punishing Russia with sanctions, size and scope of the EU budget, et cetera. The European Council is the real powerhouse of Europe. It is therefore also a black box.

I have been in the Council once when I was a diplomat. Many diplomats of the ‘Permanent Representations’ (let’s say embassies at the EU’ spend more than half of their posting in the unassuming building, attending endless ‘Working Groups’ to discuss all the proposals of the Commission, but also preparing the ministerial meetings of the Council, such as the Telecoms Council or the Eurogroup. Some ministers have to attend these ministerial Councils on an almost monthly basis.

I call the Council a black box because it’s not transparent at all. And for a good reason, say people at the Council: negotiations between EU member states need to be done in a certain outsider-free environment, so that the arguments can float and power-play can be applied without meddling of the media.

True, there are a lot of documents to be found on the (dreadful) website of the Council. But seldom do I encounter a document that tells me what is going on inside a Working Group. So I have to talk to the press officers, who are very helpful indeed, but because they work for an institute that attaches a value to secrecy, can only talk ‘on background basis’ and can only be quoted as ‘EU source’ – not even ‘Council source’. Otherwise the risk of distorting ongoing negotiations can be too big.

Another back-door solution is to talk to the Permanent Representations. Again, most of the press officers are helpful, often responding quickly and being quite open. They will most of the time let you talk to the diplomat/expert that’s the country’s representation at the Working Group. But they will never mention a member state that is blocking a deal. Nor are they very willing to share the ‘secret’ negotiation documents (code word: RESTRAINT). Unless you work for the Financial Times, of course.

Many times you throw in a pie into the Council machinerie, and then, after many months of deliberations, the end result: a cookie! Nobody really knows how that happened, but it usually has to do with protection of national interests, lobbying by big companies, or other mechanisms.

Black box 2: the trilogue
Still here? Good! We are nearly getting to the end. The EU lawmaking process is all about compromises. So first the Commission makes a proposal – for instance, rules on the protection of consumer data – and then the Parliament wants to sharpen that proposal. So it adopts a lot of amendments, aiming to protect the consumer rights even better. At the same time the member states discuss the original proposal as well, usually with the intention of watering it down.

As the European Parliament got a real say in most EU topics since the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon, a second black box has popped up in the Eurobubble. And that is the trilogue. An informal get-together of Commission, Parliament and Council to negotiate a compromise text that all institutions can live with. The trilogue is now hugely popular, though it formally does not exist and really takes place in the backroom. Around nine in ten law proposals are dealt with in this way, leading to a faster adoption of laws by the European Parliament.

But is that good for democracy? I doubt it. Striking deals is important, but there is zero transparency in this intra-institutional haggling. Not even within the Parliament. Only a few MEPs, usually the Rapporteur and some colleagues, do the negotiations and then present the end result with an attitude of take-it-or-leave-it to their democratically chosen fellow MEPs.

Thinking has started amongst the institutions how to change the trilogue system, but right now, it is the only way forward to deal with the range of new EU legislation that the Juncker Commission will produce in the next few years.

To conclude, is the EU intransparent? No, not really. But you have to be equipped with context and contacts, in order to cover the European Union.