Thursday

20th Feb 2020

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

Support quality EU news

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

... or join 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.

EU leaders face major clash on rule of law budget link

One major issue dividing member states in the ongoing budget negotiations is inserting a direct link between EU subsidies and the rule of law. While the biggest battle will be over figures, the rule of law conditionality also creates tension.

Analysis

Is Belgium heading for new elections?

Belgian coalition talks have hit a wall nine months after elections, posing the possibility of a new vote, which risks making the country even harder to govern.

Central Europe mayors join in direct EU funds plea

They call themselves the "Pact of Free Cities". The mayors of Budapest, Bratislava, Prague and Warsaw want EU funds to bypass their governments, in order to fight climate change and populism.

Analysis

German domestic turmoil prolongs EU leadership gap

A leadership contest is back on in German chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling CDU party - which could decide not only the centre-right's future but also Germany's European policy. Berlin has been absent from the EU and will likely remain so.

Salvini relishes possible migration 'kidnapping' trial

The Italian Senate will vote on Wednesday whether the far-right leader Matteo Salvini should be brought to court for 'kidnapping' 131 migrants last year, when as the interior minister he refused to allow them disembarking in an Italian port.

Five new post-Brexit MEPs to watch

Five MEPs to keep an eye on from the 27 new members who are joining the European Parliament this week, following the UK's departure from the EU.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersScottish parliament seeks closer collaboration with the Nordic Council
  2. UNESDAFrom Linear to Circular – check out UNESDA's new blog
  3. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us