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21st Sep 2020

Transparency is key EU tactic in Brexit talks

  • The ombudsman has called on EU institutions to be proactively transparent during Brexit talks (Photo: European Parliament)

For once it seems the interests of transparency advocates and the EU will coincide.

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said last week in a speech that the Brexit talks will not take place in secret, and that the EU commission will negotiate in a "transparent and open manner".

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With a nod to the Brits, and anyone toying with the idea of leaving the EU, Barnier said: "We need to tell the truth – and we will tell the truth – to our citizens about what Brexit means."

During sensitive political negotiations, secrecy usually helps to provide room for manoeuvre for all sides.

In EU negotiations, the general rule is that "nothing is agreed, until everything is agreed", which makes it difficult to keep talks transparent, as positions might shift.

Certain compromises could be interpreted in home countries as political defeat, making the sides less interested in revealing the nitty-gritty of the talks.

That fear of not being able to control the internal political agenda was reflected in UK prime minister Theresa May's comments last year, when she said she would not provide a "running commentary" on negotiations.

Brexit is different

Emily O'Reilly, the European Ombudsman overseeing EU institutions and agencies, told EUobserver that Brexit negotiations are different.

"So many people will be affected in the UK, in the EU and outside the EU, nobody wants to be surprised at the end of the two-year negotiations. Citizens, families, and businesses want to make contingency plans, they have to be informed to the fullest extent possible," she said.

O'Reilly has already sent letters to the EU commission and the EU council, asking the institutions to "adopt a proactive approach from the outset and give citizens access to relevant information and documents at the appropriate time and without the need to ask for them."

O'Reilly, whose office has a group dealing with Brexit, argued in her meetings with the EU commission and council officials that it is in their interest to be proactive in transparency as much as possible if they want to control the narrative of the negotiations.

She has advocated for the EU-27's negotiating guidelines to be adopted by leaders on 29 April, and for the EU commission's negotiating directive to be made public.

Transparency regime

The guidelines will be made public, as any other conclusions of a regular EU summit would be, but the general "transparency regime" for the negotiations still needs to be decided, a source revealed.

Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, told EUobserver in Malta on Thursday (30 March) that his negotiating mandate will be made public too, but he would not comment on the wider document of negotiating directives, which outlines the detailed position of the EU.

Barnier pledged to be as transparent as possible, saying that working documents will be accessible on a dedicated page of the commission's website. That could include the legal texts on which Brexit talks will be based, as well as the EU's positions on various issues.

Documents could be online when negotiations start in May.

O'Reilly acknowledged that, during the Brexit talks, transparency could be a negotiating tactic for the EU.

"It is in the EU's interest to be as transparent as possible, and it is not in the UK's," she said, adding that the pro-Brexit British media adds to the pressure on the government in London.

O'Reilly commended the commission on transforming its transparency policy in trade talks with Canada and the US.

Culture shift

"There has been a culture-shift, facing up to the fact that 21st century communication's ability to leak is greater than ever before," she said, adding that civil society activism is also forcing the EU executive to rethink its approach.

The EU ombudsman argues that beside the two basic documents - the guidelines and the directives - the EU should make decisions public as soon as clarity emerges on the rights of EU citizens in the UK and vice versa. This would also extend to external inputs and documents that are being lobbied by stakeholders.

She recalls that the transparency regime is not there "to do harm" to the EU's interests, and in particular cases, withholding documents could be justified.

Transparency International EU (TI) also said in a statement to EUobserver that it is "absolutely paramount that the Brexit negotiations are as open and as transparent as possible", as they influence the future of the EU itself.

"If they want the negotiations to go well, they need to ensure full transparency," the advocacy group said.

"In order to ensure market stability, actors need to be able to follow the state of the negotiations. Otherwise this might have damaging effects on both sides of the channel," TI added, while welcoming the intention of the EU Commission to publish the negotiating mandate for Barnier.

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