Did you ever find yourself desperately looking for a small piece of information of the EU, usually a geeky procedural detail, and were unable to find it on any of the EU institutions website? Are you sometimes wondering who deals with rather specific (technical and legal) EU matters that have an inter-institutional dimension? Where do you search for information on cross-cutting issues like transparency & access to documents, impact assessments, implementation of EU law or the evaluation of EU policies?
Search no more. The Secretariat General of the European Commission could be just what you’re looking for. Of course you’ve heard of it. It’s that boring support service, lacking the high profile of a specific policy field, mainly functioning “behind the scenes”, with very low (if any) visibility in the mainstream media. But what exactly is the Secretariat General and what is it’s role in the functioning of the EU? Here are just a few key facts, who knows, they might come in handy for one of our next EU geek quizzes.
The Secretariat General is one of the departments of the European Commission, having a staff of around 600 people and reporting directly to the President of the Commission. Its main role is to ensure the overall coherence of the Commission’s work at every stage of policy-making, from initiating legislation, through coordinating with the other institutions throughout the decision-making process, to the implementation of EU law. The Secretariat plays a key role in the internal decision-making process of the European Commission, being the nodal point for both the internal, inter-departmental consultation and the consultation of the external stakeholders. It is the Secretariat General that ensures the smooth running of the Commission’s work, including the detailed planning, impact assessments and final evaluation.
Moreover, it’s also important to note that the Sec Gen is also the Commission’s interface with the other European institutions, as well as national parliaments and civil society actors. In other words, it is the Sec Gen that, through its strategic position, is coordinating the spider-web of inter-institutional interactions that take place throughout the EU decision-making process. And that, you might imagine, is not the easiest of tasks. It requires a thorough understanding of the procedural intricacies of EU policy-making as well as a global overview of the various actors and their respective roles. In other words, it might seem boring, but that’s where it’s all happening, even though this is far from being the message we get from politicians, MEPs or the media.
Beside its key procedural role- and actually because of it- the Secretariat General is worth some attention also from the perspective of finding information on EU issues. And this time, it’s really getting geeky. We’re no longer talking about the nice general information on the EU, it’s impact on our lives and general activities reports. On the website of the Sec Gen is all about details, it’s all about the things you could not find (or hardly find) on any of the other EU websites. And, no, I would not even pretend this is in any way helpful or enlightening to the normal EU citizen. If anything, it could be rather puzzling. This information is targeted to “insiders”, “EU geeks”, “specialists” or however they may be called.
Just to tease your appetite for discovery, here are 7 interesting things you can find on the Sec Gen website:
- Better regulation and impact assessments. You can read here about the Commission’s “better regulation” approach, learn how are impact assessments conducted and by whom, find out what simplification, codification and recasting mean and what the Commission plans to do with all the “red tape”;
- Inter-institutional relations. Here you can find information about the framework agreements on the interactions between the Commission and the other EU institutions. There are quite interesting to look at, as they outline in detail whatever procedural issues the Treaties have left (on purpose or not) ambiguous.
- Registers of expert groups offers an overview of the consultative entities that help the Commission in relation to the preparation of legislative proposals, policy initiatives and delegated acts as well as the implementation of existing EU legislation. This might come in handy in case you are wondering who does the Commission consult at the early stages of policy preparation and how are the formal and informal expert groups operating.
- Consultation standards. You can read here the main principles and guidelines on which the consultation of external stakeholders by the Commission is based. For a list of open consultations, that can also be filtered by policy area, go here.
- Application of EU law. Are you looking for a quick guide through the labyrinth of EU law implementation? You are in the right place. Read here about the various types of EU legislation, how to implement EU law into national legislation (with a link to N-lex, the portal that gives you access (in so far as your language abilities can take you) to national legislation) and infringements of EU legislation. Don’t expect an in-depth EU law course, but it can be a good starting point for your search, as you have links to all relevant legislative monitoring portals.
- Transparency and access to documents (including transparency register). A recurring topic throughout the EU institutions. Here you get links to all the relevant legislation on the topic, as well as links to the various registers of documents. You can also find out how you can ask for access to Commission documents and that can prove to be quite useful as you might come across references to documents you cannot find online but you could obtain by asking for access.
- Evaluation of EU policies. Here you can take a peek in the Commission’ “kitchen” and read about how the various past initiatives were evaluated (ex-post, as opposed to the impact assessments which are an ex-ante form of evaluation), in terms of their results and impact. You can find here the evaluation results from the previous year. The evaluation is carried out by each DG but it’s centrally coordinated by the Secretariat General, similarly to the impact assessments.
This is by no mean an exhaustive overview of what you can find on the Sec Gen’s website (for example a list of gifts received by Commissioners is also available). It’s just a brief collection of what I consider interesting and useful links (despite the pretty old design and low quality of some of the sites, which, I hope, are currently being redesigned so that they become more than mere repositories of information). Next time you have a geeky question about EU procedures, it’s worth paying a visit to the Secretariat General’s website, or even trying to contact someone working there. They might turn out to be a richer and more precise information source on the overall functioning of the EU than you imagine.