Brussels opens debate on public access to EU documents

The Commission has adopted a Green Paper on citizens’ access to the EU institutions’ documents, opening a three-month public consultation on the issue.

The EU has been criticised in recent years over its perceived lack of transparency. The Green Paper and the public consultation are the latest in a series of efforts under the Commission’s European Transparency Initiative, launched in November 2005 by Commission Vice-President for Administrative Affairs, Audit and Anti-Fraud Siim Kallas. The Transparency Initiative also includes a previous Green Paper and consultation on a public register for interest representatives or lobbying groups.

The European Parliament already adopted its own recommendations to improve access to documents in April 2006, in a Regulation on the Århus Convention granting public participation and access to justice in environmental matters. 

The European Parliament received around 2,000 requests for access in 2006 – in more than 80% of cases, access was granted, compared with the Commission’s rate of around 66%. 

The current review is part of the wider Transparency Initiative, which encompasses stricter rules on lobbying the institutions, better scrutiny of structural funds, and improved consultation standards.   

The Commission described the move as "a further step in the drive towards more openness." Commission Vice-President in charge of Institutional Relations and Communication Strategy Margot Wallström said: "We are committed to high standards of transparency of EU decision-making process. Access to documents is an important citizens' right. With this consultation, we start the discussion how it can be best exercised."

MEP Diana Wallis (UK, Lib Dem), Parliament vice-president in charge of transparency and access to documents, said: "This consultation by the Commission is welcome but we cannot afford to delay strengthening provisions on transparency. Parliament itself has a good record of granting access to information it holds, but it should not become complacent."

The announcement was not welcomed in all quarters - civil liberties watchdog Statewatch launched two complaints against the Commission to the European Ombudsman, claiming that the EU executive "has failed to maintain a proper public register of documents"  and that "only a fraction of the documents it produces are included - the Commission failed to produce its annual report on access to documents for 2005 in the year 2006". 

Statewatch says both are breaches of the Regulation and therefore are examples of "maladministration".

Tony Bunyan, director of Statewatch, said: "The European Commission is not above the law, it is the custodian of EU law, responsible for ensuring it is properly implemented...Open, transparent and accountable decision-making is the essence of any democratic system. Secrecy is its enemy and produces distrust, cynicism and apathy among citizens and closed minds among policymakers. The European Commission must be called to account for its actions or rather its failures to act." 

Scheduled to last until 15 July 2007, the consultation, adopted on 18 April, is set to assess the implementation of the 2001 Regulation regarding public access to EU documents (Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001) and provides suggestions for improving the current system. In the consultation, the public is invited to comment on the dissemination of information, a single set of rules for access to documents combined with existing rules on environmental information, and the "proper balance between transparency and the protection of personal data, of economic and commercial interests and of the principle of good administration". 

  • Public consultation: Expected to end 15 July 2007. 
  • Report on outcome of consultation: September 2007. 
  • Proposals for amending the Regulation: October 2007.

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