European Union Negotiations: Processes, Networks and Institutions

By Ole Elgström; Christer Jönsson | Go to book overview
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Negotiating transparency

The role of institutions

Bo Bjurulf and Ole Elgström

Aim and focus

On May 30 2001 a new regulation on public access to EU documents (EP and Council 2001) was presented. It was heralded in the European press as a breakthrough for transparency in the arcane EU decision-making apparatus. The regulation contained rules and norms that had long been advocated by openness proponents.

This outcome of the negotiation process poses a puzzle for many observers. A clear majority in the Council of Ministers, including the most powerful member states, supported a more limited transformation of existing rules, corresponding to the tradition of circumscribed openness that permeates their own societies. How did this majority finally agree to a text that was widely perceived to differ from their national interests?

According to Realist accounts of international negotiations, the distribution of power is the best predictor of bargaining outcomes (Gulliver 1979; Habeeb 1988). Similarly, intergovernmental approaches to EU negotiations emphasize asymmetric bargaining power among the member states in explaining the results of negotiations (Moravcsik 1993). The focus in both cases is limited to state actors. Although some recent research has added complexity to the traditional view by exploring the role of non-state actors and networks (Jönsson et al. 1998; Elgström and Smith 2000; Beach 2002), in general little attention has been paid to the role of institutions in EU negotiations.

In this chapter we argue that a focus on institutional arrangements enhances our understanding of negotiation processes and final negotiated outcomes. In brief, the main message of institutionalist thinking is that 'institutions affect outcomes': 'political struggles are mediated by prevailing institutional arrangements', as Simon Bulmer puts it (1994:355). The effect of institutions - 'legal arrangements, routines, procedures, conventions, norms, and organizational forms that shape

We thank the Swedish Research Council for the Social Sciences and the Humanities and the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation for financial support and Christer Jönsson and Jonas Tallberg for helpful comments. We are indebted to the officials who shared their experiences and observations with us.


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