Parliament hopes to bridge divide on EU transparency rules
By Benjamin Fox
MEPs are hoping to bridge the divide between ministers and the parliament on controversial plans to re-draft EU rules governing public access to EU documents. However, the institutions remain divided as they enter the final phase of negotiations under the Danish presidency.
Speaking with EU Observer, Michael Cashman, the centre-left MEP responsible for leading negotiations for the Parliament, insisted that MEPs had “entered negotiations in good faith” but would have to reject the legislation if the Council persisted in aiming for a deal that went back on existing transparency provisions. “No deal is better than a bad deal”, he said.
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Hopes of a deal appeared to fade following the release of a negotiating paper prepared by the Danish presidency in mid-May. The presidency paper proposed a series of block exemptions to keep documents relating to infringement proceedings against member states, competition cases, court proceedings and legal advice outside of the scope. It would also give member states an effective veto over the release of documents originating from their country.
The restrictive line in Council is understood to be led by France and Germany with Sweden and Finland among those countries concerned about the potential reduction in transparency.
Meanwhile, the Parliament, which adopted its first reading position in December following a heated debate between MEPs and Maros Sefcovic, the EU commissioner responsible for inter-institutional relations, sought to widen the scope of public access to “ensure that the right of access is guaranteed as a fundamental right”.
With less than a handful of trilogue meetings left between MEPs, Council and the Commission, MEPs are understood to be ready to work with Council in a bid to tackle problems and abuses arising from the 2001 regulation, including loopholes which allow corporate access to EU documents. However, Cashman insisted that the rules "require restoration not demolition" adding that the existing regulation should be regarded as a building block.
The Danes are anxious to secure a compromise agreement by the end of the country's six month term in June amid fears that the incoming Cypriot presidency would not regard it as a priority file. A Parliament source told EU Observer that the regulation would be "a dead duck" if a deal was not reached with the Danes. However, an EU diplomatic source later claimed that "the Cypriot Presidency is interested in continuing the talks should there be no agreement by the end of June."
Failure to agree a compromise text would see the legislation scrapped and Parliament sources indicated that they do not expect the Commission to propose an alternative text.
The legal interpretation of the rules would then have to take account of Article 15 of the Lisbon Treaty, which grants public access to documents from all EU institutions and agencies including the EU’s new diplomatic service, the European External Action Service (EEAS).
The question of public access to EU papers and transparency has become increasingly high-profile. Earlier this month, a ruling by the European Court of Justice on a case brought against the Council by Liberal MEP Sophie In’t Veld, judged that the current regulation does not prevent public access to legal opinions, a loophole which Council and Commission are seeking to close off. There are also pending court cases regarding the release of papers relating to the Commission’s negotiation of the anti-counterfeit treaty Acta.