Monday

15th Aug 2022

EU officials warned to be careful about email content

New rules on public access to EU documents have prompted one of the European Commission's key departments to circulate a memo warning officials to be careful about what they write in emails and advising them on how to narrowly interpret requests for information.

The 15-page handbook was circulated in January to officials working in the commission directorate for trade, one of the EU's most important policy areas affecting millions of people both within and beyond the bloc.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • The instructions "make it easier to get reports out" and "avoid having to go through blanking out" documents, says the commission (Photo: printing.com)

It reminds DG trade employees that all documents, including emails, are "in principle subject to disclosure" and asks them to think of the regulation when they are producing documents.

"Each official must be aware that all his/her documents, including meeting reports and e-mails can potentially be disclosed. You should keep this in mind when writing such documents.

This is particularly the case for meeting reports and emails with third parties (e.g. industry), which are favourite "targets" of requests for access to documents, especially by NGOs," reads the memo.

It asks officials to draft documents "with the utmost care" while telling them to avoid making references to informal contacts, such as meals or drinks, with lobbyists.

"Don't refer to the great lunch you have had with an industry representative privately or add a PS asking if he/she would like to meet for a drink."

The document also tips off officials on how to narrow down the interpretation of a request for information. It points to a past example where a request referred to DG trade meetings with individual companies, meaning the department could avoid making public its contacts with business lobbyists.

Separating the factual from the subjective

"Recent cases concern requests for information about meetings with 'individual companies' on our FTAs [Free Trade Agreements] which have allowed us to exclude business federations on the same points, or about meetings with 'DG Trade officials' which have allowed us to exclude meetings on the same point with the Commissioner or the cabinet," it notes.

As a way of avoiding officials having to blank out parts of documents they release to the public, the transparency guide suggests writing two accounts of meetings, a "factual" or neutral one that can be released to the public and a more "personal/subjective" one with assessments and recommendations for follow up that need not be disclosed.

It also explains that briefings should not be made public if still considered "newsworthy" – a derogation allowed under the regulation for documents concerning a decision still in progress – with DG Trade working on a series of key issues including making free trade agreements with poor countries (something NGOs are always keen to have an insight into) and sensitive WTO decisions.

DG Trade's take on the transparency regulation which MEPs recently voted to expand to cover all documents, including electronic ones, has come in for criticism.

Corporate Europe Observatory, a transparency NGO, said the instructions appear to "directly contravene the spirit and content of the regulation."

Scandalous

It is a "scandalous" attempt to "legitimise DG Trade's recurrent attempts to shield evidence of its liaisons with corporate lobbyists from information requests," said CEO campaigner Pia Eberhardt.

For its part, the European Commission defended the memo. A spokesperson told EUobserver: "Actually we think these are good instructions. It makes clear that no category of documents is excluded [from the regulation]."

The spokesperson also said that the instructions "make it easier to get reports out" and "avoid having to go through blanking out" documents.

The transparency regulation dates from 2001 but the commission recently proposed to overhaul it after complaints from the EU ombudsman and several court cases. Following MEPs' vote last month the regulation has gone back to committee for discussion on sensitive issues such as the extent to which commercial data can be excused from disclosure.

The updated law is expected to be approved in the second half of this year, under the Swedish EU presidency.

MEPs agree 'top secret' category for EU documents

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.

Draghi's grip on power finally unravels

Italy looked set to lose its highly-respected prime minister Mario Draghi on Thursday, after his attempt to relaunch his grand coalition government ended with right-wing parties joining the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) in deserting him.

Italy back in chaos, as Draghi quits over 5-Star snub

Italy was plunged into fresh political turmoil on Thursday as prime minister Mario Draghi announced his resignation after a key ally within his grand coalition government boycotted a parliamentary vote.

MEP accused of 'disrespecting' female moderator

Some 100 representatives of civil society organisations, including Transparency International EU and Oxfam, accuse German Green MEP Reinhard Bütikofer of disrespecting a moderator because she was a woman of colour and want him reprimanded.

Column

Albania's post-communist dream has lessons for Ukraine

Comparisons between post-communist Albania and current-day Ukraine are fascinating — and make many pertinent parallels. Ukrainians have a similar determination to belong to "the rest of Europe" as Albanians.

Opinion

Finally, the victims of Utøya got a memorial

A legal battle between locals on the one hand and the state and the labour youth organisation on the other side postponed the inception of the memorial in remembrance of the victims of Anders Behring Breivik.

News in Brief

  1. Zelensky vows to 'target' Russian soldiers at nuclear plant
  2. Putin vows greater cooperation with North Korea and Taliban
  3. Hungarian judge slams Orbán's rule-of-law attacks
  4. Borrell condemns 'despicable' Rushdie attack
  5. Slow wind-farm approvals risk green goals, warns industry
  6. Increase in people crossing Channel to UK in 2022
  7. Swedish government to toughen gang-crime penalties
  8. Germany to help nationals cope with energy price spike

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  3. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers write to EU about new food labelling
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersEmerging journalists from the Nordics and Canada report the facts of the climate crisis
  6. Council of the EUEU: new rules on corporate sustainability reporting

Latest News

  1. Germany needs to cut gas use by 20% to stave off winter crisis
  2. Europe's wildfire destruction set to hit new record
  3. How Putin and Erdoğan are making the West irrelevant
  4. Defying Russian bombs, Ukraine football starts 2022 season
  5. Sweden to extradite man wanted by Turkey
  6. EU must beware Beijing's new charm offensive
  7. Forest fire near Bordeaux forces over 10,000 to flee
  8. Estonia and Latvia sever China club ties

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us