Court verdict supports lobbying transparency drive

The European Court of First Instance ruled yesterday (8 November) that the Commission was wrong to refuse a lager company access to the minutes of a stakeholders meeting – including a list of participants – in a judgement which has wider implications for lobbying transparency.

The court ruled that “the right of access to documents containing personal data must be guaranteed if communication of those data does not undermine protection of the privacy and integrity of the person concerned”. 

The Bavarian Lager Company Ltd, which imports German beer into the UK, had requested full minutes of a meeting on beer market trading organised by the Commission in 1996, including the names of all the lobbyists present. 

The court’s judgement means that the Commission will no longer be able to cite EU rules on the protection of private data to justify withholding the names of individual lobbyists engaged in communicating opinions or information to the EU executive. 

The precise case arose following a complaint from the company over the Commission’s decision to refuse it admission to the meeting between Commission officials, UK civil servants and representatives of a European brewers association. 

The issue emerged when in 1993, Bavarian Lager complained to the EU executive about UK legislation known as the ‘Guest Beer Provision’, which obliges brewers who own more than 2000 pubs to allow tenants the opportunity to buy beer from another brewery, as long as it is cask-conditioned with an alcoholic strength above 1.2%. 

The Commission said that the ruling would have no bearing on its plans for a lobbyists’ register, but hoped it would clarify the “grey area” between its document access and data privacy rules. 

“We will be proposing a new regulation (on document access) and when we do that, we will take the court judgements into account”, a Commission spokesman told the Guardian. 

Erik Wesselius, of Corporate Europe Observatory, a lobbying watchdog, said that “the Court of First Instance’s judgement is very good news for all those (both inside and outside the institutions) who want to improve transparency in EU decision-making”. 

He added that it will now be harder for lobbyists to justify not signing up for the Commission’s register, set to be launched next spring as part of Commissioner Kallas’s Transparency Initiative. 

The court’s latest ruling follows a recent decision by European Ombudsman Nikiforos Diamandouros that the Commission Trade DG’s practice of blanking out the names of industry lobbyists in correspondence, minutes of meetings and other documents it releases amounts to ‘maladministration’. 

The Commission has two months in which to appeal the decision in the European Court of Justice. 

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