MEPs agree 'top secret' category for EU documents

11.03.09 @ 17:27

  1. By Honor Mahony
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BRUSSELS - MEPs have called on the European Commission to be more ambitious in its transparency proposals while at the same time introducing an 'EU classifed' category protecting top secret documents for up to 30 years.

  • MEPs voted to improve access to documents (Photo: CE)

A vote on Wednesday (11 March) saw the European Parliament agree a series of amendments to the EU law governing citizens' access to documents, but the final vote on the reformed legislation was postponed in a bid to put pressure on the commission to make the law more user-friendly.

The parliament's overhaul of the 2001 transparency law, drawn up by UK Labour MEP Michael Cashman, extends the legislation to cover electronic data. It also says documents must be processed within two weeks - the commission had suggested a month - and suggests all documents should be placed on one website shared by EU institutions.

Eurodeputies also agreed a new 'top secret' category "for documents whose unauthorised disclosure could harm the interests of the European Union or its member states." This category could apply for up to three decades and must be justified.

EU ombudsman P. Nikiforos Diamandouros, who had criticised the EU commission for presenting a proposal that would result in more secrecy, welcomed the MEPs' move.

"I am very pleased that the European Parliament has, in effect, asked the commission to rethink and modify its proposals. I very much hope that the Commission will agree to do so."

"It obliges EU institutions to ensure publication of all legislative documents, the Council to make public how national governments vote and what they propose in EU Council meetings and the commission to keep updated registers of all documents," said Italian Liberal MEP Marco Cappato.

MEPs divided

Transparency and the ease with which citizens can access documents has long been a thorny issue in the EU, and has resulted in several court cases.

Statistics show that the Council and Commission turn down one third of applications for information access, while the Parliament refuses around 20 percent.

The European Commission has in the past complained about the administrative burden of being transparent, while what constitutes a document and why it may be withheld from the public eye have prompted long-running struggles with the EU ombudsman.

One of the most sensitive issues and a major reason for document secrecy is to protect commercial interests - such as when the commission is investigating competition and merger cases. MEPs themselves are split on this.

After the vote, centre-right Charlotte Cederschiöld welcomed the fact that amended legislation would now go back to committee to be further debated, speaking about the "balance" between openness and "full protection of sensitive private and commercial data."

Reacting to Wednesday's vote, commission spokesman Joe Hennon said the commission had "taken note" of the amendments and was "willing to seek a compromise."

He said the commission has concerns about "one or two" of the amendments raised but refused to go into details until negotiations are taken up again at committee level.

The law is likely to be passed under the Swedish EU presidency, starting in July, with agreement needed between MEPs, the commission and member states.

Sweden, who will drive the EU agenda as presidency country, has long been one of the most progressive member states on transparency issues.

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