Thursday

28th Jan 2021

EU officials warned to be careful about email content

New rules on public access to EU documents have prompted one of the European Commission's key departments to circulate a memo warning officials to be careful about what they write in emails and advising them on how to narrowly interpret requests for information.

The 15-page handbook was circulated in January to officials working in the commission directorate for trade, one of the EU's most important policy areas affecting millions of people both within and beyond the bloc.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • The instructions "make it easier to get reports out" and "avoid having to go through blanking out" documents, says the commission (Photo: printing.com)

It reminds DG trade employees that all documents, including emails, are "in principle subject to disclosure" and asks them to think of the regulation when they are producing documents.

"Each official must be aware that all his/her documents, including meeting reports and e-mails can potentially be disclosed. You should keep this in mind when writing such documents.

This is particularly the case for meeting reports and emails with third parties (e.g. industry), which are favourite "targets" of requests for access to documents, especially by NGOs," reads the memo.

It asks officials to draft documents "with the utmost care" while telling them to avoid making references to informal contacts, such as meals or drinks, with lobbyists.

"Don't refer to the great lunch you have had with an industry representative privately or add a PS asking if he/she would like to meet for a drink."

The document also tips off officials on how to narrow down the interpretation of a request for information. It points to a past example where a request referred to DG trade meetings with individual companies, meaning the department could avoid making public its contacts with business lobbyists.

Separating the factual from the subjective

"Recent cases concern requests for information about meetings with 'individual companies' on our FTAs [Free Trade Agreements] which have allowed us to exclude business federations on the same points, or about meetings with 'DG Trade officials' which have allowed us to exclude meetings on the same point with the Commissioner or the cabinet," it notes.

As a way of avoiding officials having to blank out parts of documents they release to the public, the transparency guide suggests writing two accounts of meetings, a "factual" or neutral one that can be released to the public and a more "personal/subjective" one with assessments and recommendations for follow up that need not be disclosed.

It also explains that briefings should not be made public if still considered "newsworthy" – a derogation allowed under the regulation for documents concerning a decision still in progress – with DG Trade working on a series of key issues including making free trade agreements with poor countries (something NGOs are always keen to have an insight into) and sensitive WTO decisions.

DG Trade's take on the transparency regulation which MEPs recently voted to expand to cover all documents, including electronic ones, has come in for criticism.

Corporate Europe Observatory, a transparency NGO, said the instructions appear to "directly contravene the spirit and content of the regulation."

Scandalous

It is a "scandalous" attempt to "legitimise DG Trade's recurrent attempts to shield evidence of its liaisons with corporate lobbyists from information requests," said CEO campaigner Pia Eberhardt.

For its part, the European Commission defended the memo. A spokesperson told EUobserver: "Actually we think these are good instructions. It makes clear that no category of documents is excluded [from the regulation]."

The spokesperson also said that the instructions "make it easier to get reports out" and "avoid having to go through blanking out" documents.

The transparency regulation dates from 2001 but the commission recently proposed to overhaul it after complaints from the EU ombudsman and several court cases. Following MEPs' vote last month the regulation has gone back to committee for discussion on sensitive issues such as the extent to which commercial data can be excused from disclosure.

The updated law is expected to be approved in the second half of this year, under the Swedish EU presidency.

MEPs agree 'top secret' category for EU documents

MEPs have called on the European Commission to be more ambitious in its transparency proposals while at the same time introducing an 'EU classifed' category protecting top secret documents for up to 30 years.

Analysis

Eastern Europe wakes up with Trump hangover

Trump's legacy in the region is mostly linked to the bilateral accords normalising economic relations between Kosovo and Serbia. During the signing of the Washington Agreement, Trump allegedly pressured the Serbian president to move Serbia's embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

EU leaders to discuss vaccine certificates

While some member states hope vaccine certificates could revive tourism, EU officials point out that it is not clear if vaccinated people can still carry the virus and infect others.

Dutch government resigns two months before election

The four parties of the Dutch government, lead by prime minister Mark Rutte, have decided to let the government fall. On 17 March, two months from now, there are parliamentary elections in the Netherlands.

News in Brief

  1. Putin holds out olive branch to Europe
  2. US snatched Russian anti-air system from Libya warlord
  3. UK to extradite alleged trafficker to EU despite Brexit
  4. EU puts trust in Boeing 737s after post-crash ban
  5. EU animal-export trade under harsh spotlight
  6. City of London wants to set rules for EU
  7. MEPs want 2030 targets to reduce consumption footprint
  8. Coronavirus cases worldwide pass 100m

Coronavirus

EU adds new 'dark red' zone to travel-restrictions map

The European Commission has proposed additional measures to limit non-essential travel within and to the European Union - amid fears over more transmissible mutations triggering a new surge in cases across the bloc.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAEU Code of Conduct can showcase PPPs delivering healthier more sustainable society
  2. CESIKlaus Heeger and Romain Wolff re-elected Secretary General and President of independent trade unions in Europe (CESI)
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen benefit in the digitalised labour market
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersReport: The prevalence of men who use internet forums characterised by misogyny
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic climate debate on 17 November!
  6. UNESDAMaking healthier diets the easy choice

Latest News

  1. Poland imposes anti-abortion law amid EU concern
  2. The EU's vaccine strategy - the key points
  3. EU-AstraZeneca row flares up after vaccines shortfall
  4. First Covid, now McKinsey - how austerity hit EU healthcare
  5. Frontex suspends operations in Hungary
  6. Cyprus: a heavy caseload for new EU prosecutors office
  7. MEPs: Portugal 'risks undermining' trust in EU prosecutor
  8. EU to control vaccine exports in row over delays

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us