What makes an intergovernmental forum emerge from the shadows?

Written by Nicholas Barrett on . Posted in Current profiles, Profiles

11082548_10205952520073215_5018089422060977802_n (1)Imagine the following scenario. You’re a European minister and you want to meet your continental counterparts. But if you talk to them at an EU meeting, every journalist, lobbyist and political enemy you have will be watching  you like a hawk and the EU will be obliged help them do it. So to avoid the cameras and notepads of the press and the strenuous procedure of Brussels, you form your own clubs to discuss with finance, regulation, transport, energy or whatever policy area you want to talk about.

These are called intergovernmental forums. They operate outside the traditional EU framework and have raised serious questions about legitimacy and transparency. But over time these disparate forums have slowly and quietly crept out of the shadows and into public life, becoming noisy actors on the European stage. So why are groups that were designed to stay backstage becoming so conspicuous? One man who might know the answer is Lewis Miller, a British researcher in the Department of Political and Social Sciences.

“I look at intergovernmental forums in the EU” he explains while sitting down for coffee with EUI Times.  “They’re basically bodies where all the ministers in a particular policy area will come to meet.” That sounds simple enough, but Miller is interested in the evolution of these groups, which has become something of an academic blind spot in our understanding of European politics. It seems, according to Miller that these groups tend to evolve into the kind of thing they were designed to be separate from. “They set these bodies up outside the EU, to keep the EU’s influence small but over time they become more like other institutions in the EU. So I explain why these governments would create an organisation but then begin to let go of the original principles that make it different to the other groups.”

One of his favourite examples is the Eurogroup, which consists of Eurozone finance ministers. “It was informal” Miller explains, “but since the crisis they’ve started putting out huge press releases, hosting big press conferences, they now have a president and involvement from the Commission to help them make policy.”

This is odd because from first appearances, it might seem like the whole point of an intergovernmental forum is to avoid bureaucratic procedure and to stay under the radar.  “Informal organisations don’t have a huge amount of rules. So if we want to discuss things, we don’t need a big rulebook telling us what we need to do, we can just get down to negotiating straight away. They tend to be more secretive as well because if you just have an informal meeting you don’t need a room and staff as so on. So it allows us to be frank and talk about things in secret.”

It’s interesting to hear Miller rhetorically meander between referring to the groups as “they” and “us”, even if he is just being hypothetical. Are these insidious smoke filled rooms or just a natural and normal fixture of 21st century politics working on our behalf? And are they trying to have their cake and eat it too by speaking up in Europe? The only way to answer these questions is to find out more about them. Watch this space.