Sunday

19th Jan 2020

EUobserved

Some deadlines 'more equal' than others at EU commission

  • The European Commission refuses to investigate appeal requests on access to documents if they are filed too late (Photo: Peter Teffer)

It is one of the first rules in the journalism handbook: thou shalt meet thy deadline.

I have learned the hard way that this applies even more when requesting EU documents.

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When EU citizens are unhappy with the outcome of an access to documents request under the EU's transparency regulation, there is the option of appeal.

This needs to be done within 15 working days of receiving the initial answer.

In August 2018, I filed a request with the commission's directorate-general for mobility and transport (DG Move), asking for documents related to several high-level meetings about self-driving cars.

In the response which followed, DG Move said that there were no documents at all about a meeting between Friedrich-Nikolaus Von Peter, a cabinet member of EU transport commissioner Violeta Bulc, and Google.

I found this difficult to believe.

At the very least, you would expect there to be email correspondence between Von Peter and Google, to establish the meeting.

But it also seemed reasonable to expect the existence of some email or summary that lists what was said during that meeting.

Unsatisfied with the response, I filed an appeal, known in EU jargon as a 'confirmatory application'.

However, I filed my appeal way too late.

Instead of responding within 15 working days, I only submitted my confirmatory application two months later.

The commission's secretariat-general, in charge of dealing with such appeals, was unforgiving.

"I regret to inform you that your confirmatory application was lodged outside the applicable deadline defined in article 7(2) of regulation 1049/2001," the commission said.

"Consequently, the commission is not in a position to handle your application," it added.

Fair enough, you might say. And normally, I would have.

But there was something inconsistent about the commission's stubborn refusal to look beyond the letter of the law.

DG Move's response itself was already late.

The regulation determines a response should be given within 15 working days, with a possibility to extend that deadline with another 15 working days.

DG Move did so, but then unilaterally extended the deadline to reply with an additional 10 working days, for which there is no legal basis.

There have been other cases in which commission departments were much slower to respond.

In 2018, EUobserver filed access to documents related to the Southern Gas Corridor project.

The initial reply from the directorate-general energy arrived only after more than two months, while the commission secretariat-general needed more than four months to respond to the appeal of that case.

Such delays in responding are no anomaly.

Ombudsman to 'monitor the situation'

Last month I turned to the European Ombudsman, asking for an opinion about the commission's unequal treatment of deadlines.

The ombudsman's head of inquiries, Tina Nilsson, said she was unfortunately not able to deal with my complaint, precisely because the "confirmatory application was not submitted to the European commission within the applicable deadline".

She said that the commission "was not acting unlawfully in refusing to deal with the confirmatory application".

However, she also wrote that "the ombudsman notes your reasonable concern at the apparent inconsistency at times in the commission's approach to the deadlines in Regulation 1049, enforcing them strictly against complainants while not always meeting them itself".

"We will continue to monitor this situation, with a view to considering whether a closer examination might be useful," she added.

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