Sunday

21st Jul 2019

Transparency NGOs call on EU not to restrict document access

  • The groups worry that details of EU business will be kept secret from citizens and journalists (Photo: Koen Vereeken)

The EU is set to tightly restrict its freedom-of-information rules just seven years after they were introduced, says an alliance of some 180 human rights organisations, transparency pressure groups and journalist unions, which have called on the European Parliament to apply the breaks to proposed legislation.

On the weekend a public letter signed by 56 investigative journalists and 131 groups including transparency and access-to-information campaigners and environmental NGOs warned that European Commission proposals that are set to be approved in the coming weeks will "substantially reduce the number of public documents" available upon request.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

Under the new rules, originally proposed in 2008 and as of Tuesday (1 February) at committee stage before the parliament, only documents that are formally transmitted would be made available upon request to a member of the public.

As thousands of documents are informally passed between European policymakers, the alliance fears that such papers and emails will now be out of bounds to the public.

Such language could even encourage policymakers to begin engaging in administrative practices that actively avoid formal transmission of documents so as to prevent the public from gaining access to them.

The new rules would also allow member states to fix more robust powers to refuse access to their communications with EU institutions and restrict access to documents involved within disputes initiated by the commission against national capitals.

"Everyone in Europe has the right to know what their elected representatives are doing with the power entrusted to them and how the public's money is being spent," said Helen Darbishire, director of Access Info Europe, a group of lawyers that trains citizens how to demand documents from their governments. "Our representatives should be fighting to extend the rights of citizens, not reduce them."

The groups called on the parliamentary committee responsible for tackling the legislation ahead of a sitting of the full chamber, the Civil Liberties and Justice and Home Affairs Committee, to amend the legislation to strip out the language they feel is restrictive.

On Tuesday, the committee had an initial exchange of views on the proposed legislation. Amendments will be considered in the coming weeks.

The commission, for its part, says it "disputes the interpretation of the transparency groups", according to institutional affairs spokesman Michael Mann.

"We believe that in general any document handed out today would also be handed out under an amended regulation as suggested by the commission," he continued, saying that the proposal aims at unpicking the "vagueness" of what counts as a document "whether a few sentences on a paper, the beginning of a draft text etc. are to be considered a document."

However, he added, many member states have "accepted that there is an issue to be looked at" and the commission is "completely open to discuss alternative texts that achieve the same goal - greater legal clarity for both the applicant and for the official handling the application."

However, in the meantime, two groups involved have even been refused access to documents relating to these changes to access-to-documents legislation.

Parallel to the call, Access Info Europe and Client Earth, a group of environmental lawyers filed lawsuits to try to gain access to two documents concerning the changes. The first case was launched in 2009 after being refused permission to see one document showing the positions of the different member states on this issue and the second case was launched last September after being refused access to a key document covering the decision making process behind this legislation.

It's not the first time the proposals have been criticised. Shortly after they were first published by the commission in 2008, the European ombudsman, Nikiforos Diamandouros, warned: "The Commission's proposals would mean access to fewer, not more, documents. This raises fundamental issues of principle about the EU's commitment to openness and transparency."

"While there are some positive elements, such as making documents available to non-citizens and non-residents of the EU, many of the commission's proposals would narrow the right of access to EU documents," he went on, describing the move as: "step backwards for transparency."

The alliance also includes, amongst many others, such groups as the Dutch–Flemish Association of Investigative Journalists, the Estonian Newspaper Association, Farmsubsidy.org, the German Civil Liberties Union and a range of transparency groups from eastern Europe.

Survey: Half of EU staff 'don't know' ethics rules

Only half of EU staff claim good knowledge of their workplace's ethics rules, while 82 percent of staff at the European Parliament have never attended any ethics trainings, according to a report by the European Court of Auditors.

Finland rejects call to end sponsorship of EU presidency

Appalled over Coca-Cola sponsoring the recent Romanian EU presidency, MEPs have asked Finland, the new holders of the rotating post, to put an end to such practices. But Helsinki, whose presidency is sponsored by BMW, has no such plan.

EU commission has first-ever woman president

Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday obtained a narrow majority of support in the European Parliament to become the first-ever female president of the European Commission.

Von der Leyen's final appeal to secure top EU post

European Commission presidential-hopeful Ursula von Der Leyen delivered her key appeal in the European Parliament to secure the post. Her appeal appeared to appease most of the political groups - but a lack of specifics, and opposition from Greens remain.

Poland's ex-PM loses EU parliament chair again

Poland's former prime minister, Beata Szydlo, has cried foul after failing to get an EP committee chair a second time, in a fiasco which could spell trouble for the European Commission presidency vote on Tuesday.

Anti-separatist Spanish MEPs dominate liberty committee

The European Parliament's powerful civil liberties committee (Libe) has elected anti-separatist Spanish MEPs for its chair and vice-chair positions. The issue risks complicating efforts by pro-Catalan factions to have the debate on independence raised to the EU level.

Magazine

The changing of the guards in the EU in 2019

The four most powerful EU institutions - Commission, Parliament, Council and Central Bank will all have new leaders in the coming ten months. Here is an overview.

Magazine

Explained: What is the European Parliament?

While domestic political parties often use the European Parliament as a dumping ground for unwanted politicians - and a majority of citizens don't bother to vote - the parliament, over the years, has become a dominant force in the EU.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  5. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  7. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  8. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  9. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  10. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North

Latest News

  1. Abortion Wars
  2. EU goes on holiday as new UK PM arrives This WEEK
  3. Survey: Half of EU staff 'don't know' ethics rules
  4. Von der Leyen signals soft touch on migrants, rule of law
  5. Timmermans: von der Leyen will be tough on rule of law
  6. Timmermans trolls 'idiot' Brexit negotiators
  7. Rudderless Europe: Will real Germany please stand up?
  8. PiS & Fidesz claim credit for von der Leyen victory

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  3. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  4. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  7. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  12. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us