Friday

19th Jul 2019

Officials, diplomats want even more EU secrecy

  • 'You basically have three to five EU countries on one side [pro-transparency] and everybody else on the other side' (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Most member states and EU institutions are keen to draw a new veil of secrecy over how they appoint top officials and enforce EU law.

The rights of journalists, NGOs and average people to get access to internal EU documents is currently governed by a regulation from 2001.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

It is already hard to gain access because there is no clear registry of what documents are about and because it can take long legal battles to make institutions drop their objections - for instance, on grounds that it would violate people's privacy, threaten national security or that there is no "overriding public interest" to publish sensitive information.

The Danish EU presidency will on Friday (13 April) hold talks with fellow member states on a new version of the rules.

But an internal note drafted by the EU Council on 30 March and leaked by London-based NGO ClientEarth indicates that access is about to get even harder.

The six-page-long note says that several member states want a new definition of what constitutes an "EU document" to exclude vast swathes of material - such as informal emails - from access.

The EU Council, the European Commission and most countries are also keen to exclude documents relating to appointments of top officials and judges and to introduce "special protection" for papers on competition cases, EU court proceedings, infringement proceedings and legal advice given by EU institutions to their own policymakers.

A Danish diplomat told EUobserver the presidency will propose excluding material which fails to meet "pre-document" criteria - such as an email drafted by an EU official which reflects his private views, but has not been endorsed as policy.

The contact noted that EU case law - such as the so-called Turco ruling in 2008, which called for greater access to EU institutions' legal opinions - could be written into the new regulation to offset "special protection" for the competition, infringement and legal documents.

The Danish source noted that this is the "make-or-break" or "most difficult" issue in the talks, however.

"There are strong views that making the legal opinions open to public scrutiny would mean they are less robust in the first place ... there is no easy answer to this," the source said.

The pro-secrecy trend comes at a time when EU bodies are getting important new powers on oversight of national budgets.

For her part, Anais Berthier, a ClientEarth lawyer, said it also goes against the Lisbon Treaty, which declares in its opening words it wants "an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as openly as possible."

"Confidentiality creates suspicion - if the process was more transparent, it would make the decisions more legitimate and people would adhere more closely to the Union. But the council and the commission clearly want the least possible public participation," she noted.

On infringement procedures - in which the commission can fine member states for not complying with EU laws - EU spokesmen give snippets of information in press briefings.

But Berthier said unless documents are made public while the procedure is ongoing, people cannot understand what their government is really accused of doing wrong and civil society cannot monitor if EU officials are really enforcing laws or just cutting deals for everybody to save face.

On the issue of behind-closed-doors appointments, she noted that EU bodies have a bad track record - in one recent example, it took a series of leaks and investigative reports to expose that the EU food safety agency in Italy is being run by food industry lobbyists.

ClientEarth's views were endorsed by more than 80 other NGOs in an open letter to EU institutions on 10 April.

But another Danish presidency contact indicated they are fighting a losing battle. "Looking at past discussions, you basically have three to five EU delegations on one side [pro-transparency] and everybody else on the other side," he said.

EU states appeal court ruling on transparency

EU member states are set to launch an appeal of a lower court decision with the European Court of Justice hoping to prevent greater transparency in decision-making - even about transparency rules themselves.

Brussels journalists unhappy with 'routine secrecy'

Journalists in Brussels are dissatisfied with the "routine secrecy" that goes on in the EU institutions, an association of foreign journalists said after an information request from the group was only partially upheld by an EU court.

Commission pushes for document secrecy despite court judgement

The EU commission and national governments are seeking to tighten rules granting access to their internal documents despite a ruling by the European Court of Justice calling on them to release legal opinions drafted by the EU Council’s legal service.

Magazine

The changing of the guards in the EU in 2019

The four most powerful EU institutions - Commission, Parliament, Council and Central Bank will all have new leaders in the coming ten months. Here is an overview.

Magazine

Explained: What is the European Parliament?

While domestic political parties often use the European Parliament as a dumping ground for unwanted politicians - and a majority of citizens don't bother to vote - the parliament, over the years, has become a dominant force in the EU.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  5. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  7. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  8. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  9. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  10. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North

Latest News

  1. Timmermans: von der Leyen will be tough on rule of law
  2. Timmermans trolls 'idiot' Brexit negotiators
  3. Rudderless Europe: Will real Germany please stand up?
  4. PiS & Fidesz claim credit for von der Leyen victory
  5. Von der Leyen faces gender battle for commission posts
  6. EU proposes yearly rule of law 'reports'
  7. Poland 'optimistic' despite new EU law checks
  8. What did we learn from the von der Leyen vote?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  3. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  4. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  7. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  12. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us