9th Dec 2023


How do you make embarrassing EU documents 'disappear'?

  • The EU Commission's reluctance to uphold its legal obligations makes a mockery of its proposed Media Freedom Act, and claims to be on a mission to protect press freedom (Photo: Unesco)
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The question has bugged EU officials for years but under commission president Ursula von der Leyen's administration, it finally appears to have been answered and ... (spoiler alert!) ... the trick relies on sleight of hand.

Last week, the EU Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly censured the commission for doing it again — with a maladministration ruling in response to a Freedom of Information request I made for three emails in March 2022.

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  • When I first arrived in Brussels in 2009, I found its relative openness and above-board procedures on access to documents a welcome breath of fresh air (Photo: Arthur Neslen)

The commission's new magic formula is simple. You declare the documents in question to be "short-lived correspondence for a preliminary exchange of views" and thus exempt them from being logged in the official inventory.

On these grounds, commission bureaucrats refused to look for, identify or assess the three emails I requested, despite what the ombudsman ruled was a legal obligation to do so.

Similarly, the Commission would not search for text messages sent to Pfizer by the EU president herself during the Covid-19 crisis, arguing these had only a "short-lived ephemeral nature."

Rachel Hanna, the deputy director of Access Info Europe warned: "This is something that we are seeing time and time again. The commission declares that emails or text messages are 'short lived' documents that are not registered, and therefore not technically in its possession."

Now you don't see it ... now you won't

In my case, the magical excuse is preventing the release of emails which I have good reason to believe will show that the office of Finnish International Partnerships commissioner Jutta Urpilainen intervened to weaken environmental laws in three files over which they had no jurisdiction (the forest strategy, soil strategy and climate adaptation strategy), after lobbying from the Finnish logging industry.

This lobbying was so intense that the commission refused to release more than a fraction of the emails received by Urpilainen's offices citing the excessive workload involved in processing them all.

In all, the commission said they found "more than 140 registered entries [for lobby missives], some containing several documents."

Yet the mission statement Urpilainen received from von der Leyen in 2019 does not mention the environment, nature or forestry even once. So why did so many lobbyists think that her offices were an appropriate address for such interventions?

Here's an example of the sort of intervention we are talking about. Released emails show that in January 2021, one Finnish logging association requested Urpilainen's help in replacing references to "closer to nature forestry" in the EU's Forest Strategy with "new terms and definitions".

Comparable requests were made by two other major Finnish logging lobbyists.

Scandinavian loggers were worried at this time that planned closer to nature guidelines might prevent the clear-cutting of trees, in a way that other terminology, such as "sustainable forest management," would not.

I fully expect one of the emails I requested to show that in the summer of 2021, an official in Urpilainen's cabinet requested legislative changes to the Forest Strategy in line with these industry requests, which appear to have been granted. The same occurred with the soil and climate adaptation strategies.

If I am wrong, the commission should prove it by releasing should prove it by releasing the three emails in unredacted form and allow the issue to disappear legitimately.

If I am right, the commissioner must explain why her offices sought and obtained legislative changes for files over which they had no jurisdiction — in line with requests from industry groups in the commissioner's home country.

As Hanna states: "According to the EU's access to documents rules, if matters relating to the policies, activities or decisions of an EU institution are discussed in a specific medium, it is a 'document' and it should be available for the public to request, subject to limited exceptions. The existence of this document should not depend on its registration."

It's a scandalous issue because the clear-cutting of forests turned Finland from a net carbon sink to a carbon emitter for the first time in 2021.

Further uptake of the practice across Europe risks grievously undermining the EU's target for a 15 percent increase in the carbon sink by 2030, on which the European Green Deal depends.

Clear-cutting of Europe's forests actually spiked by 49 percent between 2016-2018. Three years later, the European Environment Agency warned of "a drastic increase in the amount of clear-cut harvested forest area, leading to a negative effect on biodiversity and carbon sinks."

Playing for time, as the clock ticks

The most frightening aspect of this email affair is that the commission's response has been to play for time — just as time to prevent catastrophic global heating is on the point of running out.

In my case, that has meant an 18-month wait which interfered with my livelihood. The ombudsman "urged the commission to finalise its assessment without delay" as a result.

But it's not just me. The situation for other journalists too is so grim that the ombudsman called for action in the European Parliament last week "to reduce systemic delays in dealing with requests for public access to documents."

The commission's reluctance to uphold its legal obligations in these respects makes a mockery of its proposed "Media Freedom Act", and claims to be on a mission to protect press freedom.

When I first arrived in Brussels in 2009, I found its relative openness and above-board procedures on access to documents a welcome breath of fresh air, after years of working as a journalist in London and the Middle East.

But this new trend to hiding the evidence of how national industries may influence the action of public servants that share their passports, reeks of the worst sort of Whitehall cover up.

If it is allowed to continue, we will all pay the price — the commission included.

Author bio

Arthur Neslen writes about the environment for the Guardian, Open Democracy, Equal Times and others. He was formerly the Guardian's European environment correspondent.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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