Sunday

19th Nov 2017

Secret documents group was like 'bad Le Carre novel,' MEP says

  • Neyts-Uyttebroeck: 'Sometimes it bordered on the ridiculous, like a bad Le Carre novel' (Photo: ChodHound)

The European Parliament's Special Committee, which is to have access to classified documents on EU foreign relations, is getting ready to start work. But its previous incarnation, under ex-EU-foreign-affairs chief Javier Solana, fell short of expectations.

The outfit, an offshoot of the larger foreign affairs committee (Afet), will have five members: Italian centre-right Afet chairman Gabriele Albertini; German centre-right deputy Elmar Brok; Spanish centre-right member Jose Salafranca; Romanian centre-left MEP Adrian Severin; and Italian centre-left member Roberto Gualtieri. Belgian liberal MEP Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck is to be a substitute.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

On the basis of a recent agreement with European External Action Service (EEAS) chief Catherine Ashton, the EU parliament president and other Afet deputies drafting reports on specific topics will also be given access on a temporary basis.

Every MEP to benefit from privileges first has to gain security clearance from their country of origin, a process which involves filling out a long questionnaire and then waiting for six to 12 months.

Mr Salafranca and Ms Neyts-Uyttebroeck still have valid clearance from their time in a similar body under Mr Solana. Mr Gualtieri obtained his in recent weeks. Mr Albertini and Mr Brok expect to get theirs in time for the committee to start work in early 2011, just as the EEAS itself gets up and running. The situation on Mr Severin is unclear.

The cell's official purpose is to improve Afet decision-making by giving it access to top information. In practice, the MEPs are to have regular briefings on sensitive subjects by EEAS staff and then request secret papers that they read in a "Class I" secure room in the Council of Ministers building in Brussels after leaving recording devices, such as mobile phones, and paper and pens at the door.

The committee can appear like a form of democratic oversight on the EEAS and the Joint Situation Centre (SitCen), the member states' intelligence-sharing bureau in the external service. "It's important that people know what we are not doing, that we are not opening their post, reading their emails," a contact familiar with the work of SitCen said.

But it will not be an oversight body in the strict sense of oversight committees in national parliaments because SitCen does not have a mandate to do real intelligence-gathering operations.

On paper, the MEPs are to have access to all levels of EU classification: Tres Secret UE; Secret UE; Confidentiel UE; and Restreint UE.

Tres Secret UE documents tend to deal with "life and death" subjects, such as military targets or assets in war zones. Secret UE documents are defined as being liable to "seriously harm the essential interests of the European Union or of one or more of its member states" if disclosed. Leakage of the lower-graded papers is deemed to do less harm.

In practice, very few Tres Secret UE documents exist in the EU institutions in the first place. The SitCen contact also noted that there is a difference between people who have clearance and people who "actually get stuff." "What I can say is that for really top-level - Tres Secret UE - we are talking about a handful in the commission and a handful in the Council," the source explained.

On top of this, MEPs' access will be limited on the basis of the "originator principle" under which EU capitals which share intelligence with SitCen can stipulate who can and who cannot see it.

Italian deputy Mr Gualtieri noted that the time it takes to gain national security clearance could be "a real problem" for Afet and Inta rapporteurs who may find their report is due before they get the green light.

Meanwhile, Belgian MEP Ms Neyts-Uyttebroeck, a former foreign minister, said the quality of information under Mr Solana was variable.

"Sometimes when a document is stamped 'super secret' it's not as sexy as you'd imagine. Sometimes it bordered on the ridiculous, like a bad Le Carre novel. We'd have to leave our mobiles and so on before entering the reading chamber. Then you saw a document that was, for example, the mission statement of Eulex, which was the same as we already had in the newspapers," she said, referring to British spy novelist John Le Carre and the EU police mission in Kosovo.

"At other times it was really interesting, like the rules of engagement for UN troops in Lebanon. When you are operating in a war zone, there's no need to tell the enemy what your rules of engagement are."

She added that the set-up has questionable value for Afet because Special Committee members cannot tell their colleagues what they know and cannot claim a superior status in decision-making.

"We can express our opinion on this or that. But we have to resist the temptation to try to substitute ourselves for the rest of Afet. That would not be a good thing," she said.

Investigation

What is 'SECRET UE' anyway?

EU countries have a protocol for sharing official "secrets." But motives for classifying files are not always pure and the number of really hush hush papers in Brussels is tiny.

MEP switches vote on 'private expenses' transparency

A small group of MEPs are looking into how members of the European Parliament spend the monthly €4,300 'private expenses' funded by taxpayer money. Last month, MEPs voted on transparency amendments on the funds.

News in Brief

  1. Bonn climate talks extend into Friday evening
  2. UK needs to move on Brexit by early December, Tusk says
  3. Puigdemont extradition decision postponed to December
  4. Ireland wants written UK guarantees to avoid hard border
  5. US did not obstruct climate talks, says German minister
  6. EU signs social declaration
  7. Puigdemont to be heard by Belgian judges
  8. Steep fall in migrants reaching EU

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Jewish CongressAntisemitism in Europe Today: Is It Still a Threat to Free and Open Society?
  2. Counter BalanceNew Report: Juncker Plan Backs Billions in Fossil Fuels and Carbon-Heavy Infrastructure
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic countries prioritise fossil fuel subsidy reform
  4. Mission of China to the EUNew era for China brings new opportunities to all
  5. ACCASmall and Medium Sized Practices Must 'Offer the Whole Package'
  6. UNICEFAhead of the African Union - EU Summit, Survey Highlights Impact of Conflict on Education
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council Calls for Closer Co-Operation on Foreign Policy
  8. Swedish EnterprisesTrilogue Negotiations - Striking the Balance Between Transparency and Efficiency
  9. Access EuropeProspects for US-EU Relations Under the Trump Administration - 28 November 2017
  10. World Vision20 November: Exchange of Views at the EP on Children Affected by the Syria Crisis
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersSustainable Growth the Nordic Way: Climate Solutions for a Sustainable Future
  12. EU2017EEHow Data Fuels Estonia's Economy

Latest News

  1. EU keeps former Soviet states at arm's length
  2. EU leaders make pledge on social issues after populist backlash
  3. EU agencies and eastern neighbours This WEEK
  4. Germany slams Dutch call for more ambitious EU climate goal
  5. Mind the gap: inequality in our cities
  6. Climate activists 'disappointed' with EU at climate talks
  7. Davis outlines UK vision on Brexit in Berlin
  8. German coalition talks in near collapse

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Step Up Water Management Cooperation
  2. CECEMachinery Industry Calls for Joint EU Approach to Develop Digital Construction Sector
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersMale Business Leaders Gather in Copenhagen to Advance Gender Equality
  4. EnelNo ETS Deal Means It Can Still Be Strengthened
  5. EU2017EEEstonia Anticipates More Digital Cooperation With Sweden
  6. Mission of China to the EUChina Launches Campaign to Protect IPR of Foreign Companies
  7. European Jewish CongressEJC Condemns Attacks on Ruta Vanagaite and the Shredding of Her Books in Lithuania
  8. Bio-Based IndustriesDiscover the Future of the Bio-Based Economy. Register Now for the BBI Stakeholder Forum!
  9. European Free AllianceWelcome Catalonia!
  10. UNICEFGrowing Number of Unaccompanied Refugee Children in Greece in Need of Shelter
  11. Counter BalanceNature Destruction Cannot Be Compensated For, Say NGOs
  12. CES - Silicones EuropeSilicones - Enabling the Next Big Leap in Prosthetics and Health