17th Jul 2019

EU accused of 'step back' in transparency

  • The commission unveiled its document access overhaul last April (Photo: EUobserver)

The EU's transparency watchdog will today strongly criticise the European Commission's commitment to openness, saying its recent proposals on document access represent a "step backwards."

At a hearing in parliament on Monday afternoon (2 June) to discuss the proposed overhaul of public access to document rules, EU ombudsman Nikiforos Diamandouros will say: "The commission's proposals would mean access to fewer, not more, documents" and that the new code "ignores the lessons of the past."

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The ombudsman, who oversees EU citizens' relations with the European institutions, has not been able to "identify any of the commission's proposals that would result in more documents being accessible than at present."

The criticism comes a month after the commission unveiled proposals to update a 2001 law on document transparency that has been subject to strong criticism by MEPs and NGOs for being too restrictive.

But according to the ombudsman, while some proposals would make "fewer documents accessible," others are based on "contestable understandings of [EU] case law" and some entirely new proposals "are difficult to reconcile with a genuine commitment to ensuring the widest possible access to documents."

The proposal to change the definition of a document - so that only papers that have been formally sent to people or otherwise registered could be said to be a "document" - means that the commission will effectively decide what documents are covered by the new law.

In addition, the commission has proposed that documents containing information about "natural or legal persons" that are part of an investigation should never be available to the public - a move that goes beyond the current situation.

Betrayal of promises to citizens

The third main proposal in the commission's transparency regulation is also condemned by Mr Diamandouros. The commission is proposing that all documents - currently it is only internal documents - involved in the period before a formal commission decision is made be exempted from public scrutiny.

The effect of this would be to "give the commission discretion to share documents informally with a limited number of favoured external recipients of its choice" without risk that these documents will later be legally available to the public.

The ombudsman's has some praise for the fact that the commission's proposal will cover citizens everywhere and no longer just in the EU and that Brussels is calling for clearer procedural rules in all institutions on making documents available.

But overall, he says they betray "promises to citizens, civil society and representative associations made in the Treaty of Lisbon."

Mounting up

This is not the only criticism the new proposals have received. UK civil liberties organisation Statewatch last month called aspects of the reforms "highly retrogressive."

The ombudsman is calling on MEPs to play "an active role" in shaping the new legislation.

However, the European Parliament's own standing on transparency took a blow earlier this year when MEPs voted down a proposal to make auditors' reports public as a matter of principle.

A recent auditor's report, unavailable to the public, revealed cases of MEPs abusing their monthly staff allowances.

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