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European Union

 
15/12
2011

”Cannot be accepted”, says commissioner after EU-transparency vote

Commissioner Šefčovič is not amused

A clear, if not overwhelming, majority in the European Parliament has voted against proposed deteriorations of the present access law in the EU. But the Commission sounds ready to fight for more restrictive rules.

With 394 votes against 197, and 35 abstentions, the directly elected EU-politicians have rejected suggestions for a new transparency law as suggested by the Commission.
The vote carried out at the plenary session in Strasbourg Thursday December 15 gave a clear backing to amendments put forward by MEP Michael Cashman (Socialists and Democrats, UK) and others in the LIBE committee (Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs).
”Only through transparency can citizens participate in an informed way in the democratic process, which is even more important in the current crisis", rapporteur, Michael Cashman, said in the debate.
The no votes came predominately from members of the major party group EPP (European People's Party – Christian Democrats).

 

The good news is that the Parliament:

  • * Defends a broad definition of documents and data held by the EU-institutions to be covered by the rules. The Commission wants to limit access to documents ”formally transmitted or otherwise registered or received”.
  • * Limits exceptions from transparency for whole categories of documents, such as legal advices and documents related to upcoming decisions in administrative matters (non-legislative matters).

* Secure transparency as an overriding principle when related to fundamental rights and an healthy environment.
* Demands that persons shall not be able to hide behind data rules and privacy when involved as professionals in legislation - especially if they are lobbyist or represent interested parties.
* Rejects suggestions that member states or other third parties should have a right to veto access to documents forwarded to the EU based on their own legislation.
* Sticks to the present handling deadlines for request (15 working days) and says no to other proposed deteriorations, such as hiding behind copyright rules.

 

The not so good news is that these amendments to a large extent only underline what is already in the present regulation adopted back in 2001.
It is therefor difficult to see if the Parliament actually pushes the frontline towards more transparency, or merely defends old victories.
And, a probably not so good news at all is a suggestion to extend the present three categories of classifications of documents also to cover documents marked ”restricted”, the lowest level of classification used by the Council.
This means that documents can be classified, and thus kept outside the scope of access, if they contain ”information which could be disadvantageous to the interest of the Union or of one or more of the member states.
Hence the Parliament agrees to limit transparency arguing that the parliamentarians themselves - or some of them - get the same access as members of the Commissions and the Council.
This might even out the balance between the EU-institutions, but will not open up the system for ordinary citizens.

 

The vote in the Parliament gives momentum to a case that has been stalled for more than three years.
The upcoming Danish presidency can now start preparing negotiations between the three institutions the Commission, the Council and the Parliament with an aim to finalise a new regulations on access to documents.
This is not going to be easy.
During the debate in Strasbourg commissioner Maroš Šefčovič was not exactly enthusiastic about the majority's views and amendments:
"This agreement risks taking time and I am afraid that, given the amendments proposed in the report, agreement on changes to the regulations is not within reach. I cannot of course anticipate the position that the Council will take on the proposed amendments but many of them cannot be accepted by the Commission,” Šefčovič said.

 

As it is up to the Commission to propose the final piece of legislation, the statement ”cannot be accepted” is not a promising sign for smooth negotiations.
Next step in the process will be a formal reaction by the Council of ministers on the outcome of the vote in the EP. This will most likely take place in January. It will then be the task of the Danish presidency to evaluate whether a compromise might be negotiated or not.
Denmark is considered to be a pro-transparent country in the EU but Danish diplomates are well aware of that they most likely represent a minority in the Council in this respect.
It is also well known that the Council back in 2009 leaned heavier to the side of the restrictive Commission than the pro-transparent Parliament.
An interesting and perhaps intriguing question now is if the present euro-crisis and legitimacy discussion of the EU as such, will pave the way for better or for worse access rules.

 

 

 

 

Staffan Dahllöf

 
 
 

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