"Transparency is a big issue this year," EU Ombudsman P. Nikiforos Diamandouros told EurActiv, insisting that "all three [EU] institutions agree that access to documents must be revisited".
"It will be a big event for citizens if the Council moves forward on access to documents in the autumn," Diamandouros continued. Sounding a cautious note, however, the Ombudsman warned that "it's one thing to have declarations, but it's quite another to see how they're applied".
"I would be inclined to think that if [incoming EU presidency holder] Sweden doesn't get an advancement of the current regime, it will drop the [current] proposals for fear of going back on what we already have," the Greek said.
Diamandouros said 36% of citizens' complaints in his annual report for 2008, set to be presented on 27 April, concern transparency and access to documents. 70-75% of these address the European Commission, with the remainder primarily regarding the EU's recruitment office (EPSO) and the European Parliament.
The Ombudsman conceded that the "vast majority" of the 3,500-4000 complaints he receives each year from citizens are inadmissible, because they should be dealt with at national level.
Asked whether he wished to continue beyond the end of his current mandate in June, Diamandouros said he had not yet decided whether to reapply, but would make up his mind within a month. "My mandate ends with that of the Parliament," he said, explaining that it would take the new EU assembly until December or January to conduct hearings for the next Ombudsman, as appointing the new Commission must take priority.
Parliament report on access to documents
Meanwhile, members of the European Parliament's committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs yesterday adopted a report calling for a "more transparent system of information for the public and a common interface for registers of documents".
MEPs approved a text drafted by UK Labour MEP Michael Cashman regarding the revision of a 2001 Regulation on the right of public access to EU documents. The Parliament is currently working in tandem with the Council to revise the legislation.
The committee demanded that legislative dossiers be made completely public, including the positions of national delegations to the Council, and called on the EU institutions to make sure that "all documents" are contained in their registers.
"MEPs must have access to documents classed as secret," the report further declared. It defines document as "any data or content [that concerns] a matter relating to the policies, activities and decisions falling within the institutions' spheres of responsibility".
If adopted, legal service opinions would have to be made public when they deal with legislative procedures, and the EU institutions would no longer be able to keep legislative documents secret on the grounds that they could undermine decision-making processes.
Moreover, the report calls for documents originating from a national government and received by the EU institutions to be disclosed too. "Member states should ensure that their citizens enjoy at least the same degree of transparency as that provided at EU level," MEPs further stressed.
The report further establishes a scale for classifying documents. Should their disclosure be considered harmful to EU or national interests, files could be held back as "EU restricted" or "EU top secret," but only if they do not concern legislative procedures and satisfactory reasons for doing so are given.
The Parliament's full plenary will vote upon the Cashman report in Strasbourg in April.