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25th Aug 2019

EU receives record number of requests for documents

  • EU citizens filed applications to see documents 6,912 times in 2018 (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Commission has received a record number of requests to publish documents, according to statistics released this week.

EU citizens filed applications to see documents 6,912 times in 2018.

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  • The figures suggest that appealing a refusal or redacted document, often helps reveal more information (Photo: European Parliament)

The commission called this "a striking increase of approximately 9.5 percent in comparison with 2017", when the number of requests was 6,255.

Since the entry into force of the EU's access to documents regulation in 2001, there has been an increase in the number of requests for documents almost every year.

It should be noted that 6,912 applications does not translate into the same number of documents. In fact, those were "far more numerous", the commission said, without giving an exact figure.

"Whereas applicants may ask for access to a single document, they more frequently request access to a multitude of documents, or even to entire files concerning a specific subject or procedure," it said.

Last year, the directorate-general (DG) for health and food safety received the highest share of requests (11 percent), followed by the secretariat-general (6.7 percent), and the DG for internal market, industry, entrepreneurship and SMEs (6.5 percent).

Almost half of all applications (45.9 percent) came from Belgium, most likely due to the many EU-focused journalists, non-governmental organisations and law firms based in Brussels.

Around nine percent each came from the United Kingdom and Germany.

Access denied

The commission denied access to documents in the initial stage of the application 969 times, almost 16 percent of the time. That is less often than in 2016 and 2017, but more often than in 2014 and 2015.

The commission gave full access to the requested documents 59.4 percent of the times, a record-low. Compare this to, for example, the situation in 2010, when 82.2 percent of documents were released in its entirety.

Instead, a steadily increasing share of documents is released with redactions (5.4 percent of replies in 2010; 20.8 percent of replies in 2018).

The most-often cited reason for redactions was, as in previous years, privacy protection. This often involves simply blanking out the name of a civil servant or a person representing a company.

Other reasons for redacting information, as is allowed exceptionally in the relevant regulation, included the protection of commercial interests, the fact that the information is part of a decision-making process not yet finalised, and the fact that the information is part of an inspection, investigation, or audit.

Asking for a review helps

At the same time, the figures suggest that appealing a refusal or redacted document, often helps reveal more information.

This appeal is called the confirmatory application, and it is followed by a full review of the documents by the commission's secretariat-general (SG).

In 6.6 percent of the cases in confirmatory stage, the SG granted full access to documents, and wider partial access in 34 percent of the cases.

EUobserver requested a successful review in such a case that year, in relation to documents about the WiFi4EU fund, which distributed subsidies to municipalities wanting to install free public internet hotspots.

The DG handling the request, directorate-general Communications Networks, Content and Technology, initially redacted information related to the technical problems the internet portal for the fund faced.

In fact, the DG was trying to hide embarrassing details by citing exceptions in the access to documents regulation.

The secretariat-general, in the review, decided that these exceptions were not applicable, and released the documents.

Yet while a review of the case often leads to additional information being opened up, it is a step few applicants take.

The commission received only 318 such confirmatory applications in 2018, less than five percent of the requests at the initial stage.

Still, this is also a record-high number.

The report, published on Monday (29 July), also hinted that the commission needed more staff to deal with the increased requests for access to documents.

"The steadily rising number of new applications for access to documents since the entry into force of regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 and the demand for increased transparency in the area of public access to documents highlight the need to allocate sufficient human and IT resources to the European commission in order to ensure the efficient handling of access to documents requests and achieve the best outcomes for citizens," it said.

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