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26th Jan 2020

Brexit transparency is 'political play', says EU watchdog

  • The letter formally starting the Brexit process was made public immediately, but the remaining EU-27 want other documents to be released, too. (Photo: Council of the European Union)

The promise by the EU to be as transparent as possible in the negotiations with the UK over its exit from the bloc is “political play”, said the European Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, at a press conference on Wednesday (24 May).

She spoke two days after the Council of the European Union, where national governments meet, had published a document that laid out rules on when to publish documents relating to the Brexit negotiations.

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  • O'Reilly: 'I'm not naive enough to think that this is because the Council and the Commission have fallen in love with transparency all of a sudden.' (Photo: European Ombudsman)

“Ensuring that the negotiations are conducted in a transparent manner will be one of the keys of their success,” the document said.

In a letter to the ombudsman, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker had promised in April that the EU's transparency policy on the Brexit talks would be "unique and unprecedented".

The document adopted in Monday puts a “strong emphasis on everything being shared,” O'Reilly's noted.

But she said that this push for transparency has more to do with the fact that UK prime minister Theresa May “has urged quite the opposite: secrecy, warning against leaks, threatening sanctions against people who leak”.

“I'm not naive enough to think that this is because the EU council and the commission have fallen in love with transparency all of a sudden. I see this as political play,” said O'Reilly.

The Ombudsman annual report, published on Tuesday, noted that transparency issues, like access to documents requests, were the office's most prevalent issue over the past two years.

“It's been our experience that [the] council has been the least transparent of the big institutions,” O'Reilly said.

However, she said that some improvements were visible, even if it is more of an evolution than a revolution.

O'Reilly noted that the EU commission under the leadership of Jean-Claude Juncker, who took office in November 2014, has made transparency “one of the hallmarks”.

She noted that, in particular, the experience with talks for the EU-US trade agreement, TTIP, was important.

“There was a complete change of heart within the commission when they saw the engagement of civil society, when they saw the impact of social media,” said O'Reilly, noting that the commission became much more transparent about the talks after public protests.

Somewhat related to that, the European Ombudsman also said that Brexit will have a “positive impact” on the engagement of citizens with politics happening at EU level.

“People are more curious about it, a lot more people are engaged. That adds to the pressure perhaps particularly at council level for greater transparency,” she said.

More transparency from the council is also key to reducing euroscepticism, she said.

“Typically people say, when they don't like a certain policy, 'it's Brussels', and they imagine it's the commission and it's the commissioners, and it's a very narrow group of 'faceless bureaucrats', unelected, making unaccountable decisions and so on,” said O'Reilly.

“What I've been trying to say to the council, and to EU institution leaders as well: If you want to break through the myths, if you want to break through the caricature, then you have to allow people to see how laws are actually made, and how power is actually distributed as between the EU institutions and the member states.”

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