Providing access to legislative documents should be standard practice for a well-functioning democracy, but the European Union is less transparent than many of its member states, argue Daniel Freund and Alex Johnson.
Daniel Freund and Alex Johnson are policy officers for Transparency International EU.
During the summer break the European Commission published its annual report on public access to institutional documents. The information reveals some interesting facts about the EU legislative process. Over 500 requests a month for documents were sent to the three institutions (Council, Parliament and Commission) in 2014, that’s 6,227 for the year. Almost 300 fewer than in 2013. Full disclosure was granted for three quarters of requests.
Sounds good right? Or does it? With access to documents and freedom of information (FOI) it’s hard to draw direct comparisons with national approaches. For example, the UK’s FOI rules cover almost all public institutions, from universities to local councils. In Slovakia every public contract is covered by an FOI act, which is considered among the best in Europe. However, access to information in the three main decision making bodies of the EU is rather limited.
There are two important lessons in the numbers. Firstly, there is a lack of access to information about EU decision making. Citizens should not have to request legislative documents in the first place. All documents that are part of the legislative process should be public by default. That includes documents outlining the negotiating positions of the three EU institutions or ‘four column documents’ when they meet behind closed doors during ‘trialogues’ – the three way talks to reach compromises on EU law.
In 2013 the European Court of Justice ruled that the Council must release documents disclosing member states’ positions in Council working groups. To get around the ruling, the Council simply stopped recording the names of individual countries, making it once again impossible for an outsider to know what position their member state is taking in their name.
Secondly, the institutions must do more to ensure that already published documents can actually be found. In the EU Integrity Study we published last year, we found that 78% of access to document requests were for files that were already in the public domain. Citizens, journalists and civil society organisations simply could not find them.
Of the people who requested documents in 2014, 20% were academics and 12.8% of applications were from other EU institutions. If even ‘eurocrats’ and university professors struggle with trawling through clunky EU document libraries, then surely that says something about accessibility?
Access to information is vital for any well-functioning democracy. It should be standard practice for the EU institutions to publish all documents from each step in the legislative process. They should not wait for someone to request them, but rather put them online proactively.
Not only would this reduce the administrative burden on the under-staffed Transparency Unit at the Commission, but it would also greatly improve the transparency of EU decision making. Finally, it would mean that the institutions would comply with the spirit of Article 10 of the EU treaties: “Decisions shall be taken as openly and as closely as possible to the citizen.”