Friday

4th Dec 2020

Investigation

Violating promises and law, von der Leyen tests patience

  • 'Transparency should characterise the work of all the members of the commission and of their cabinets,' EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen declared (Photo: European Parliament)

When Ursula von der Leyen took the helm as president of the European Commission last year, she told her commissioners they should be open about contacts they have with lobbyists.

"Transparency should characterise the work of all the members of the commission and of their cabinets," she wrote.

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  • The number of access to documents requests received by the commission is on the rise, according to a report published last month (Photo: European Parliament)

"Transparency is of particular importance where specific interests related to the commission's work on legislative initiatives or financial matters are discussed with professional organisations or individuals," added the new president, in a document titled Working Methods of the European Commission, a sort of rulebook for commissioners.

I have recently learned that despite transparency having become "one of the guiding principles for the functioning of the new commission", this principle is not always put to practice.

My experience rather showed the opposite.

As an investigative journalist, I regularly file access to documents requests. These allow me a direct 'peek in the kitchen' of EU lawmaking, because minutes of meetings with lobbyists or emails received from member states often provide a more accurate picture of what happened than statements made by spokespersons or commissioners.

When the Covid-19 pandemic reached Belgium, like organisations everywhere, the commission moved much of its work online - including its discussions with lobbyists and companies.

I decided to ask the commission's secretariat-general (SG) to grant me access to all documents related to all videoconferences von der Leyen had held with lobbyists until that point (5 May).

My request included the two videoconferences that until then had been made public on the commission president's webpage on lobbyist meetings meetings held with organisations or self-employed individuals, one with vaccine company CureVac and the other with a group of CEOs.

But I had a feeling that these two might not be the only videoconferences that she had held.

After all, the first time von der Leyen met with a lobby group as commission president, she publicly registered it more than a month after it took place.

The rule is that these meetings are published within two weeks.

Knowing this track record, I specifically made clear that my request included "any other videoconferences with companies that have not been made public yet".

Kafka calling

The next day, the secretariat-general (SG) replied to say that this phrase "does not enable us to identify concrete documents which would correspond to your request".

Basically, I was asked to tell the commission which meetings the commission had not yet made public.

I told the SG this was an impossible question to ask me and that if anyone would know which meetings have occurred that had not yet been registered, it would be the SG itself.

Six weeks went by.

In the meantime, the meetings webpage was updated and sure enough, other meetings were added that had taken place in April - i.e. before I sent my access to documents request.

Von der Leyen had apparently spoken in a videoconference with the bosses of Volvo, Siemens, Maersk, and Air Liquide, and in one with the chairman of the German Trade Union Confederation.

On 19 June the SG sent its official answer to my request, by releasing some (partially redacted) documents. But in its response it had neglected to include anything regarding the previously unpublished meetings.

The SG said that "we limited our search to documents related to the two meetings identified in your request".

I shared my experience with Helen Darbishire, executive director of Access Info Europe, a group which lobbies for greater transparency.

She said it was "laughable" that I was expected to know the content of any unpublished meetings, and found it hard to understand why the SG even had to ask for clarification.

"It really is quite surreal how the European Commission sometimes seeks to clarify requests when they are pretty obvious by common sense standards," said Darbishire.

15 working days - plus 15, plus 15...

As is my right under the EU's access to documents regulation, I appealed the case.

This meant the SG - but a different unit - had to look at my request again.

According to the regulation, the appeal is supposed to be handled within 15 working days. The rules allow for one extension of another 15 working days in "exceptional cases" - although it is my experience that virtually all my cases have been "exceptional."

The final deadline to reply passed on 7 August. On 17 August, the SG acknowledged it was not able to reply on time. "We would like to apologise for the inconvenience and we would like to assure you that we are doing our utmost to provide you with a final reply as soon as possible," said the SG.

Two months later - 81 working days since my appeal - I am still waiting.

Such a long delay is something which Access Info Europe "regularly" sees. "That requests and appeals sometimes take many months to be answered is a clear violation, not only of EU law but of a fundamental right of all EU citizens to obtain documents from the European Commission and other EU bodies," said Darbishire.

Vitor Teixeira, EU integrity campaigner at Transparency International EU, added: "Denying or unduly prolonging access to information does not only leave politics open to undue influence, it also amplifies sentiments of mistrust in the EU."

He has seen "clear indications which show that the von der Leyen commission has not stood by its commitments to transparency and ethical conduct".

Indeed, the 'Working Methods' document which von der Leyen had sent to commissioners in her name, was clear about how to apply the rules from the EU's access to documents regulation.

"Members of the commission and services should respect the deadlines set by this regulation at all times," von der Leyen's own rulebook said.

Staff shortage?

Darbishire noted that these delays could be the result of consultations or a heavy workload. "Either way it is unacceptable as the right of access to documents is a fundamental right," she noted.

There is some support for the theory of a heavy workload. The number of access to documents requests received by the commission is on the rise, according to a report published last month.

In 2019, the commission received the highest number of initial requests ever: 7,445 - up from 6,912 the year before. The number of appeals (officially called confirmatory applications), rose to 334 in 2019.

But while the report acknowledged "the steadily rising number of new applications for access to documents and the increased demand for transparency highlight the need to allocate sufficient human resources to the European Commission", it did not say there was a staff shortage.

Rather, the report boasted that a "specific team within the Secretariat-General's Unit for Transparency, Document Management and Access to Documents is exclusively dedicated to the task of ensuring the coordination and uniform implementation of the detailed rules."

The report also did not reveal how often the commission missed its deadlines.

The Council of the EU, which receives far less requests than the commission, did provide some insight into that. The council's annual report included an average number of days needed to reply.

A commission spokesperson said however such a figure "cannot be easily retrieved" in the commission's database.

Author bio

Peter Teffer is a freelance investigative journalist who was part of the EUobserver reporting team from 2014 to 2019.

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