EU: Use Google, the Commission suggests as the debate on access gets heated
The European Parliament pushes for access to member states positions in EU-documents, but faces an uphill battle. A representative for the Commissions suggests the use of Google for those interested in transparency.
Michael Cashman, MEP from British Labour and the main rapporteur – author of the Parliaments report – on access to documents says the Parliament will formally adopt its position ”fairly swiftly, probably before summer.”
If this will be the case a three-year long stalemate on access to EU-documents might come to an end.
Since spring 2008 the three EU-institutions the Commission, the Parliament and the Council have been bogged down in a low profile war on the future rules of EU-transparency.
In 2009 the Parliament took a critical stand against the suggestion of new rules proposed the Commission the year before.
This criticism was repeated in 2010 shortly before the EP-election. But the final vote on Mr Cashman’s report is still to be taken.
The Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) has deliberately waited to make its position formally known. The Committee has thus hoped to be engaged in a so-called trilogue negotiation with the Council and the Commission; formally known as negotiations for a first reading agreement.
In such negotiations, conducted behind closed doors (!), the Parliament has got more power than if the process proceeds with two or more reading in the open.
But this hope of a short track has not been met. None of the other two institutions wants to go into a trilogue on access rules. They stand firm on the proposal from 2008, and have shown no interest in giving in to the Parliament, save for a pro-transparency minority of between five and seven Member States in the Council.
Never the less a hearing organised by the LIBE-committee in Brussels 13 April showed signs of the process gaining momentum, as indicated by Michael Cashman.
This momentum seem to gain speed by a second proposal from the Commission to instantly make some limited changes of the access rules in order to meet the requirements of the Lisbon treaty:
There should be clear references to the new treaty in the access regulation, and it should be spelled out that the rules cover all EU-institutions and not only the Commission, Parliament and Council, the Commission proposes
To some member states this ”Lisbonising” of the present rules could be adopted quickly without too much fuzz.
Other actors are not so sure.
Tony Bunyan, head of the civil rights watchdog Statewatch says now is the time to make a clear brake with one of the central exception of access in the EU-system.
”Lisbonising is a good chance to get rid of the exception of access of documents that would seriously undermine the decision-making process,” he said.
This exception (article 4.3) once coined by the Commissions as a needed ”space to think” for EU-institutions, is often used to withhold members states positions before a EU-law has been adopted.
”The exception had a basis in the Amsterdam treaty, but after Lisbon has come into force it’s not longer treaty based,” Tony Bunyan added at the hearing.
Deirdre Curtin, professor in EU-law came close to the same conclusion.
”The Lisbon treaty puts emphasis both on access to documents and the right of citizens to participate in the democratic process. We need the principle of openness in the lawmaking even more as the EU is not a fully representative democracy,” she said.
A third voice singing the same tune is the voice of Heidi Hautala, Finnish MEP from the Greens and rapporteur on the Annual Report on public access to documents for 2009-2010.
Heidi Hautala has published four working documents on the function of the present rules. She concludes that legislative transparency; ”especially in the framework of Council working groups” must be fully established.
That means revealing member states positions.
Heidi Hautala believes that the major overhaul of the present rules first suggested in 2008, and the proposed ”Lisbonising” put forward this year, could be conducted at the same time, but admits to be uncertain of the outcome:
”The main principle in the Lisbon treaty says that everything is accessible, but we can see how the Commissions and many Member States want to undermine this rule. If we look at the present rules it’s clear that they are better than the Commissions suggestions,” Heidi Hautala says.
The rapporteurs, including Finnish liberal Anneli Jäätteenmäki, are now pushing for action, most likely by taking the formal vote on the Parliaments position before summer 2011.
In doing so they face an uphill battle, especially since they want to include common classification rules for sensitive documents in the revision of the rules.
This would mean that parliamentarians, if only a selected and security vetted group, would get access to top-classified documents from the Council.
To many member states this is a repulsive idea.
The lack of interest from the Council in the matter of transparency was shown at the Brussels hearing by the absence of representatives from both the present Hungarian, as well as from the upcoming Polish, EU-presidency.
Hubert Szlaszewski, representing the responsible Commissioner Maros Sefcovic told the committee that he himself had only dealt with access to documents for two weeks, but said that he did not find the situation as bad as indicated by other speakers at the hearing.
”A system I use myself is to google for documents”, Mr Szlaszewski advised the audience.