20th Mar 2019

Brussels criticised on access to documents law

  • Citizens have complained about document access in the past (Photo: European Commission)

The European Commission's plans to overhaul rules on public access to documents have been strongly criticised by a civil liberties watchdog, which says its proposals are "retrogressive" in key areas.

Due to be unveiled on Wednesday (30 April), the proposal updates a 2001 law on document transparency that has been subject to strong criticism by MEPs and NGOs for being too restrictive.

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But according to UK civil liberties organisation Statewatch, the proposed amendments "do not consider many of the fundamental questions posed by civil society and the European Parliament."

"Two of the commission amendments are highly retrogressive," said Statewatch editor Tony Bunyan.

He was referring a change in the law which redefines the meaning of a document so that if it is not recorded in the commission's system, it is not considered a document.

According to an explanatory note attached to the proposed new law, the commission says that a "document only exists if it has been sent to recipients or circulated within the institution and as been entered in the institution's records."

This point is likely to be strongly criticised by NGOs, who want to know about possible documents that may have been used to influence forthcoming laws. A particularly sensitive area in this regard is legislation concerning the environment.

Mr Bunyan also condemns a proposed amendment to the current regulation that suggests that each EU institution shall define its own rules on which other documents "are directly accessible to the public."

In addition, the commission has removed a general principle currently in the law that all documents listed on the public register should be "as far as possible" directly accessible to the public in electronic form.

Statewatch also accuses the commission of failing to address requests by MEPs to give parliamentary control over classified documents and provide a "single access point to preparatory legislation."

There is some praise however for a proposed change by the commission to disclose personal data of civil servants and interest representatives "in relation to their professional activities" unless disclosure would "adversely affect the persons concerned."

The proposed revamp of the document access law comes as the European Ombudsman recently noted that lack of transparency, including refusal of information, continues to top the list of EU institutions' sins against citizens.

Of all the complaints concerning EU institutions the ombudsman received last year, 28 percent concerned transparency and the European Commission came off in the worst light.

However, the parliament's own transparency image came in for a blow last week, 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 MEP abusing their monthly staff allowances.

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