Committee of inquiry

The 1992 Maastricht Treaty gave the European Parliament the formal right to establish temporary committees of inquiry to investigate ‘alleged contraventions or maladministration in the implementation of Union law’ (Article 226 TFEU). Such bodies complement, in higher profile form, the role of the European Ombudsman in investigating cases of maladministration in the EU institutions. Although the Parliament had already convened several such committees before this new provision came into effect (in 1993), their position was dependent solely upon its internal rules of procedure. Under Rule 185, a committee of inquiry may be set up by the Parliament’s plenary, at the request of one quarter of the total membership (currently 189 out of 754 MEPs) and on the basis of a proposal formulated by the Conference of Presidents (of political groups). Such a committee meets in public, unless it is decided to the contrary, and must complete its work within a year (although exten­sions up to a further six months are allowed), with a report submitted at the end of the process to a full session of Parliament. The treaty makes it clear that such committees may not investigate matters which are sub judice. Since 1993, the Parliament has used its power relatively sparingly, establishing committees to study fraud in the ‘transit system’ for lorries (1995), the BSE crisis (1996), and the collapse of the Equitable Life Assurance Society (2005).

The original treaty wording on committees of inquiry provided that the ‘detailed provisions governing the exercise of the right of inquiry shall be determined by common accord’ between the Parliament, Council and Commission. The sensitive question of such a committee’s access to documents and to testimony from officials was settled in an Inter-Institutional Agreement (IIA) concluded in April 1995. On this basis, a committee of inquiry is entitled to receive from the authorities of the member states and from EU institutions ‘the documents necessary for the performance of its duties’, except for those withheld ‘by reasons of secrecy or public or national security’. On a ‘reasoned request’, national authorities and EU institutions ‘shall desig­nate the official or servant whom they authorise to appear’ before the committee: these witnesses ‘shall speak on behalf of and as instructed by their governments or institutions’, and are bound by considerations of secrecy and public or national security. A committee of inquiry does not, however, have the power to subpoena individual named witnesses. In September 1996, for example, the British agriculture minister, Douglas Hogg, refused to appear before the committee examining the BSE affair. Under the Lisbon Treaty, these arrangements for the ‘exercise of the right of enquiry’ will, from now on, have to take legislative form. The Parliament makes a proposal, which has to secure the formal consent of both the Council and Commission before it can take effect.

Committees of inquiry are not to be confused with the ostensibly similar ‘temporary committees’, recently renamed ‘special committees’, established more frequently in the European Parliament (under Rule 184 of its rules of procedure). The creation of a temporary committee can be proposed directly to the plenary by the Conference of Presidents and its remit may cover any topic. They are normally focussed on policy questions – for example, human genetics (2001), safety at sea (2003), EU future financing (2004 and 2010), climate change (2007) or the economic and financial crisis (2009). Sometimes they have been used to try to conduct de facto enquiries – although lacking the formal powers of Committees of Inquiry – as in two temporary committees directed at controversial US policies: the operation of the Echelon interception system (2001) and CIA rendition of terrorist suspects (2006).

September 2012

Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012

Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry

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