23rd Mar 2018

EU criticises Sweden over transparency move

The European Commission has taken the first step of legal action against Sweden for having given public access to a confidential document – a move that could ultimately see Stockholm defending its traditional policy of transparency in EU courts.

Late last month the commission sent a formal letter to the Swedish authorities asking for explanation as to why environment group Greenpeace in 2005 got access to a document about a new type of genetically modified corn feed to be launched by Monsanto - the world's leading producer of biotech seeds.

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The information had on Monsanto's request been classified as secret by the Dutch government where it had handed in its application.

The commission then contacted Sweden after the biotech firm had complained that the leak could have damaged the company.

Greenpeace had been refused access to the report in the Netherlands and therefore turned to Sweden where - after taking the issue to the highest court - the NGO finally got the report from the Swedish Board of Agriculture - the government's expert authority in the field of agricultural and food policy.

Article 25

The EU executive referred to an article laid out in an EU directive for genetically modified organisms, which says that if an application with a request to market a biotech product has been classified by one member states, then this confidentiality must also count when other member state authorities take part in the application.

"Such a system would not function if different competent authorities would be able to have different standpoints in the matter of whether information would be treated confidentially or not," the commission argues in its letter, according to Swedish newspaper MedieVärlden.

It is on these grounds that Brussels has asked Sweden to explain how it implemented the directive into national law; whether Sweden recognises decisions made by other member states concerning the directive and how they justify their own decision.

It is too early to say what the Swedish government will reply to the commission, Magnus Blücher from the legal office of Swedish environment ministry told EUobserver.

He said the government is expecting an explanation from the agriculture board next week after which officials from the environment, justice and foreign affairs ministries will work together on an answer for Brussels.

Stockholm has until the end of November to reply to the commission's letter.

Swedish transparency

The principle of free access to public records in Sweden is very important, said Per Hultengård - freedom of expression expert at the Swedish Newspaper Publishers' Association (TU).

It is part of Sweden's cultural, historical and legal background. It is very well established, he told this news-site.

Mr Hultengård argued that when dealing with public documents sent to the Swedish authorities from other countries they should be subject to Swedish law and sometimes that clashes with community law.

The issue was controversial when Sweden negotiated its EU membership in 1994, with Stockholm declaring several times that it would maintain the widest public access and that it would strongly defend this right.

"I assume the Swedish government will continue this position", Mr Hultengård said.

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