Wednesday

22nd May 2019

Finland and Sweden denounce new EU transparency rules

Finnish and Swedish ministers on Thursday (11 December) have jointly criticised a proposal by the European commission to modify the current legislation granting public access to EU documents, saying that certain types of documents would be excluded.

Both Nordic countries have been strong promoters of the new law establishing access to EU documents, a regulation adopted in April 2001.

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  • Access to EU documents might be more restrictive if the current legislation is modified. (Photo: wikipedia)

The commission has proposed adapting the regulation and merging it with one dealing solely with environmental information. Ostensibly, the aim is to apply the UN's Aarhus Convention, adopted in 1998 and which grants access to information, participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters. However, the commission proposal also includes some complementary changes that have raised concerns in Finland and Sweden.

"We are worried about the latest proposal by the commission and the effects it could have on public access to documents," Finnish minister for EU affairs, Astrid Thors, said during a panel discussion at the country's mission to the EU in Brussels.

"Our interpretation is that the commission proposes to exclude certain documents, such as documents related to the commission's own inspections," she added.

"The justification for this exclusion is that it would ease the workload of the commission, releasing them from the duty of assessing the documents one by one. But on the contrary, we believe that considering documents one by one is a cornerstone of this legislation. What we may lose in the end with a little bit more work, we win by having a good and sound administration," Ms Thors stressed.

The Finnish minister praised the Barroso commission for "so many good initiatives" aimed at increasing citizen participation in EU affairs, while hoping that the initiative to review the current legislation on access to documents would not reflect the "general mindset" of the EU executive.

Cecilia Malmstrom, the Swedish minister for EU affairs who drafted the current regulation from 2000 to 2001 when she was a MEP, stressed the importance of transparency in reducing corruption.

She particularly insisted on not giving a veto right to member states over documents originating from them that the EU institutions were subsequently requested by citizens to disclose.

"The actual wording of the commission leaves some doubts regarding the possibility of member states referring to national legislation," she said, arguing that this could impede access to documents that otherwise would be granted by the current regulation.

Marc Maes, a commission official dealing with the review of the regulation defended his institution, saying that the proposal was mainly aimed at merging different rules for different institutions and types of documents.

He said that the current legislation has granted access mainly to academics, lobbyists and lawyers, and that the actual number of regular people requesting access is smaller than the recorded one, since requests for documents from people who do not identify themselves - by using a non-descript webmail address for example - were automatically classified as having come from ordinary citizens.

Ian Harden, deputy of the European ombudsman, said that there was a need to clarify the rules governing how documents are initially filed, or registered with the EU institutions. The current regulation permitted institutions two extremes – either to register all internal documents, including e-mails, or to decide not to register important documents, such as working papers, which were actually of public interest.

Not in favour of the commission's review of the legislation was Hans Brunmeyer, who used to be in charge of press, communication and protocol within the general secretariat of the EU council – the administrative body which deals with the meetings of ministers and heads of state.

He said: "Too much precision in the legislative text would restrict access to documents," and hailed the Finnish EU presidency last year, which decided to publish a number of meeting documents which previously would have been classified.

EU leaders consider citizens 'outsiders'

Free access to documents was not a "gift" but a right, said British MEP Michael Cashman, who worked on the original drafts of the legislation and was currently reviewing the commission proposal on behalf of the civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee.

He said the failure of the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland is an example for what lack of information can lead to and called for the meetings of heads of state and ministers to be open for scrutiny and thus raise the level of accountability.

Mr Cashman also proposed that each department - or directorates general as they are called - within the EU institutions have an information officer who could face sanctions if his or her directorate did not comply with the regulation granting access to information.

Quoting from an EU Council refusal to a request for information, Finnish MEP Anneli Jaatteenmaki revealed what she considered a "very arrogant view of decision makers."

The Council refused to disclose its legal opinions drafted by the legal services arguing that they deserved special protection so as not to create "uncertainty regarding the legality of the measure adopted further to that opinion." The case was brought to the European Court of Justice by Sweden, who won.

It was precisely openness and transparency that guaranteed legitimacy of EU institutions in the eyes of the people, said Ms Jaatteemaki, who was a Justice minister in Finland and currently a co-rapporteur on the commission proposal on behalf of the constitutional affairs committee.

Citing further from the same Council document, she said she was appalled that the Council referred to ordinary EU citizens as "outsiders" and concluded that there was still a long way to go to convince EU institutions that they are accountable to citizens.

Committees in the European Parliament are scheduled to give their opinion on the commission proposal on 22 January, followed by a vote of the full sitting of the house in March.

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