MEPs urge EU to boost public access to documents

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The European Parliament has urged the Union’s institutions to improve the public’s access to EU documents, specifically calling upon the Council to make details of its debates public.

MEPs, who were voting on a report drafted by Italian MEP Marco Cappato (ALDE) yesterday (14 January), also called on the Parliament to publish more detailed information about their activities. 

“Accessing information relating to the EU institutions still remains an obstacle-strewn path for ordinary citizens, due to the lack of an effective citizen-oriented inter-institutional policy of transparency and communication,” reads Cappato’s report, which was approved by 355 votes in favour to 195 against (amid 18 abstentions). 

Parliament ‘must lead on transparency’ 

The report argues that “the Parliament should be at the forefront of publicity, transparency and openness in the EU,” calling on it to launch an “extraordinary action plan” ahead of elections to the assembly in June 2009, putting more information online about MEPs’ participation in parliamentary work, as well as on their allowances and expenses. 

Parliamentary assistants’ expenses became an issue last March after Dutch Green MEP Paul van Buitenen made public a confidential committee summary giving details of numerous payment abuses (EURACTIV 07/03/08). MEPs have since passed legislation to normalise the employment conditions of their Brussels-based assistants by developing a common set of rules (EURACTIV 17/12/08). 

Improving access ‘may not be enough’

To complement this, by adopting Cappato’s report, the Parliament pledged to establish “a public online database providing easy access to MEPs’ activities and financial records”. 

But Cappato himself warned that “more access to documents may not be enough”. Stressing the difference between “passive” and “active” transparency, he said although information spread throughout the pages of the EU assembly’s website is “in theory public,” it is often difficult to find in practice. 

Towards a single EU portal? 

Indeed, the report calls upon all the European institutions to improve the “user-friendliness” and “interconnection” of their websites by creating a “single EU portal to access all EU documents [and] procedures”. It urges the Parliament to introduce live web-streaming of parliamentary committee meetings, as it does already for plenary sessions. 

Specifically, the adopted report calls upon the Parliament to make the following information available on its website: 

  • Details of “MEPs’ activities, participation in and attendance at parliamentary work, in absolute, relative and percentage terms,” accessible via clear search criteria. 
  • Details of the Parliament’s activities in plenary, committee, delegations and internal bodies, particularly by including references and links to all relevant documents. 
  • Details of MEPs’ allowances and spending, and declarations of financial interest, in all official EU languages. 

Council urged to open up too 

MEPs also urged the Council to make public details of sessions that deal with legislative dossiers, bringing an end to the practice of holding secretive meetings shielded from the eyes of the public. Moreover, the report calls on the institution to disclose the identity of national delegations in its working and expert groups. 

At present, “all non-sensitive documents […] which are to serve as a basis for deliberations, could influence the decision-making process or reflect the progress made on a given subject are automatically listed” in a public register of Council documents in operation since 1999, according to a statement on the institution’s website. 

But the Parliament’s report laments that the Council’s complex referencing system “makes it difficult to associate a document with a procedure, while accusing the institutions of “either downgrading documents to ‘room documents’ that are not registered, or treating them as ‘diplomatic’ […], nullifying citizens’ right of access”. 

Finally, MEPs want to establish a European Year of Transparency, and called for a “European transparency campaign” to be promoted ahead of the European elections. 

"With this vote, the European Parliament has made a step forward in leading the democratic battle for active transparency," said Italian MEP Marco Cappato (ALDE), the author of the Parliament's report. "We need to help citizens gain easy access to information and to be able to understand it by facilitating their consultation," he explained. 

UK Liberal Democrat MEP Diana Wallis, the Parliament's vice-president in charge of transparency, said: "Making such public information more accessible is a modest step for the Parliament to take, but it is an important one, particularly ahead of the next elections in June. Citizens need to have the tools to keep their elected representatives to account." 

"We now have the politics and administration of transparency in step in our institution, in stark contrast with many national parliaments," Wallis declared. 

During an earlier debate in the Parliament on the issue, a representative of the Council  expressed reservations about publishing the positions of national delegations, which should be done on "a case-by-case basis" to take account of "the wider public interest". 

Last autumn, the Czech Senate passed a resolution describing the European Commission's amended version of the Access to Documents Regulation as "a step backwards which does not contribute to enhancing the legitimacy of European administration or strengthening its responsibility towards the public".  

Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström responded by admitting that "the definition of the concept of 'document' [in the amended regulation] remains very wide. It is not intended to restrict the number of documents falling within the scope of the regulation". 

"On the one hand, it 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'; it is a 'document' once it 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', e.g. deposited in the relevant case file," Wallström said, quoted by Statewatch, which monitors civil liberties in Europe.  

In response, Statewatch Editor Tony Bunyan commented: "Under the Commission's proposal, only the final document would be a "document". All the draft proposal documents would not be 'documents', which means that all the changes, options, discussions would be secret and hidden from public view and scrutiny. The lifeblood of a democracy is the ability of parliaments, civil society and citizens to know what is being discussed and to make their views known before the final 'document' is set in stone." 

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. 

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). 

Yesterday's vote in the Parliament relates to a 1 July 2008 ruling by the European Court of Justice on a case brought by Italian Radical MP Maurizio Turco, formerly an MEP, which decreed that opinions of the Council's legal service relating to the legislative process should be made public. 

  • June 2009: European Parliament elections. 

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