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28th May 2022

EU Commission promises only minor update on transparency

  • The EU Commission is working on internal guidelines, says vice-president Vera Jourova (2nd right) (Photo: European Commission)
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The European Commission says it wants to overhaul EU transparency rules on greater access to documents - but can only muster non-binding guidelines instead.

"For the sake of transparency culture, I think that we have to come up with new rules," said vice-president Vera Jourova on Monday (15 November).

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"We all know that simply the time is ripe for upgrading the rules," she said.

Jourova made her statement in Brussels at an event on gaining greater access to EU documents, hosted by the watchdog, the European Ombudsman.

Jourova said the best option would be to create a new regulation that applies to all institutions, replacing and updating a 20-year old EU rulebook on transparency.

"This is the way it should be," she said.

But she will not propose a new regulation, noting previous proposals needed to be withdrawn.

Instead, she is working on internal guidelines. The guidelines would then be used as a benchmark and a starting point for negotiations on possible future legislation, she said.

The commission in 2005 started working on reforming the public access to documents regulation, known as 1049/2001.

It then came up with a proposal in 2008 and another updated version in 2011 to expand its scope in line with the Lisbon Treaty.

They went nowhere.

The European Parliament had put forward its position. But the Council, representing member states, did not.

The commission then offered to withdraw the proposals. The European Parliament refused.

The issue has become increasingly sensitive, due in part, to how documents are classified and registered in light of social media and the rise of the internet since the regulation's formulation in 2001.

A recent report in the German magazine, Der Spiegel, for instance, revealed that the commission does not archive WhatsApp messages. Neither does the president of the European Council.

A New York Times report said European Commission president Von der Leyen had helped hammer out one deal - using text messages and phones call with a CEO - to buy 1.8 billion doses of the coronavirus vaccine.

When pressed, Jourova countered that decisions are not being made using text messages.

But she did not rule it out either, noting that these forms of "short term communication" will need to be published at some point.

A representative of the council, also present at the event, demanded a cautious approach.

"It is a complex issue that is not only linked to access to documents," said Reijo Kemppinen, the council's director-general for communication and information.

He said informal discussions, outside the public purview, is first needed to see how to make the EU's document access rules better suited.

European Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, noted that the commission first started working on the issue in 2005. "How much time do people need?" she asked.

Document access figures

Last year, the European Parliament received 442 initial applications for public access, granting access to 93 percent of the cases.

The council received 2,321 requests, granting access to 84 percent. The commission got 8,001 requests, granting full or partial access to 81 percent.

O'Reilly said the figures do not reveal the full story.

She described some of what may have been partially released as "innocuous stuff" like press releases or a line for a letter, which "has no substantive value in relation to whatever the the individual may be looking for."

More transparency on EU media owners planned for 2022

The commission vice-president Vera Jourova highlighted Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and France - where developments in the media market have caused concern, and admitted the "state of the media in EU is not good".

Transparency fight hones in on releasing EU text messages

The European Council has not kept any text messages or another type of instant messaging from its president to heads of state. It says nothing qualified to have them registered for public access. Transparency campaigners disagree.

Opinion

20 years of public access to EU documents: time for makeover?

One shortcoming is that this cornerstone of EU transparency comes from a radically different era, predating many modern communications tools, such as smartphones and instant messaging, and the emergence of 'Big Data'.

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