Commission rapped over public access to files

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EU Ombudsman P. Nikiforos Diamandouros last week urged the European Commission to set up a “comprehensive” document register, responding to complaints from transparency NGOs that the EU executive fails to register the “vast majority” of its documentation.

“The European Parliament and the EU Council have set up satisfactory registers. I therefore see no reason why the Commission should not be able to do so,” argued Diamandouros last Thursday (29 January). 

But the Commission argued that it is “impossible” to establish such a record at present because its various departments currently use “incompatible registers”. Indeed, it even disputed the Ombudsman’s definition of a document, to obtain exemptions from having to comply with EU legislation.

Diamandouros’ latest intervention concerns an October 2006 complaint from British NGO Statewatch, which monitors civil liberties in Europe. Statewatch alleges that the EU executive has failed to maintain a “proper public register of its documents”. 

For its part, the EU executive responded by declaring that its “definition of the concept of ‘document’ […] defines the point in time when a document drawn up by an institution becomes a ‘document’ in the meaning of the regulation”. “As long as a document is in progress, it is not yet a ‘document’,” argued Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström, quoted by Statewatch. 

Papers become ‘documents’ “once they has been finalised by its author and sent to its internal or external recipients or, if it has not been sent to recipients, once it has been ‘otherwise registered’, for example by being deposited in the relevant case file,” Wallström said. 

But Statewatch’s Bunyan disagrees with this assessment. “The Commission’s refusal to act is simply unlawful. It has to be called to account. If the Commission, the custodian of EU law, can simply ignore the law, why should other institutions and agencies of the regulation not do the same?,” he asked.  

Rejecting the EU executive’s argument in this regard, Diamandouros ruled that its failure to create a satisfactory register constitutes maladministration. “In the current debate on the reform of access to document rules, I called for clearer guidelines on what registers should contain. Unfortunately, the Commission has chosen instead to propose a narrower definition of a document is,” the Ombudsman further stated. 

Lamenting the Commission’s lack of progress since the complaint was tabled, despite repeated requests from MEPs and the Ombudsman for it to move on the issue, Statewatch Editor Tony Bunyan said the EU executive’s refusal to comply “is compounded by the fact that the Commission is charged under the treaties with enforcing the implementation of EU law, especially EU regulations”. 

Accusing the Commission of being “utterly intransigent” throughout its twenty-six months of correspondence with Statewatch, Bunyan complained that the EU executive “does not agree with the definition of a ‘document’ as set out in EU law and does not agree that it is obliged to list all documents on its public register as set out in EU law”. 

Meanwhile, transparency issues will continue to move up the EU agenda in the run-up to the European Parliament elections in June. 

Indeed, in a report adopted last month, MEPs urged the Union’s institutions to improve the public’s access to EU documents, specifically calling on the Council to make details of its debates public (EURACTIV 15/01/09). 

The Parliament also called for the establishment of a European Year of Transparency, and wants a “European transparency campaign” to be promoted ahead of the elections. 

"The definition of the concept of 'document' [in the amended regulation] remains very wide," insisted European Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström. "It is not intended to restrict the number of documents falling within the scope of the regulation," she added. 

Criticising new access to documents proposals presented by the European Commission last year, EU Ombudsman P. Nikiforos Diamandouros said "in my view, [the plans] will lead to fewer rather than more EU documents being made available to the public". 

"The European Ombudsman and the European Parliament have called on the Commission to act on its obligations under EU law, yet it refuses to do so," said Tony Bunyan, editor of transparency website Statewatch

"Access to documents is the lifeblood of a democracy. It allows citizens, civil society and parliaments to find out what is being proposed so that they have an informed debate and make their views known before measures are adopted or implemented," Bunyan further stated. 

Entitlement to access European Commission, European Parliament and EU Council documents is considered a fundamental right of European citizens and a key element of the wider debate surrounding the transparency and openness of the EU institutions. 

Last week, the Parliament's Bureau decided to publish details of MEPs' attendance in parliamentary meetings on the EU assembly's website (EURACTIV 23/01/09). 

The move marked the first major development since the Parliament's adoption of new guidelines on access to documents earlier this month (EURACTIV 15/01/09). 

For its part, the Commission adopted a Green Paper on public access to EU documents in April 2007. Meanwhile, citizens' rights in this field are set out in a 2001 Regulation on public access to Parliament, Council and Commission documents, to which the EU executive proposed amendments in April 2008. 

Last summer, EU Ombudsman P. Nikiforos Diamandouros slammed the Commission's proposals, telling MEPs that they "would mean access to fewer, not more, documents," raising "fundamental issues of principle about the EU's commitment to openness and transparency" (EURACTIV 03/06/08). 

  • June 2009: Elections to the European Parliament. 

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