The Swedish Union of Journalists Puts EU Decision on Openness to the Test: Political Considerations Ahead of Right to Access

Easier searching, decent and correct treatment - but no break-through for openness. That's the conclusion of a test of the today one-year-old EU rules on access to official documents, carried out by the Swedish Union of Journalists.

Despite amendments to the treaty and despite new, binding rules about public access to official documents, it's political considerations, not the rights of citizens that determine which documents are to be handed over.

Citizens of the member states are to be kept in the dark when it comes to the arguments that their representatives put forward in the EU. This facilitates negotiation and decision-making, is the Council of Ministers' justification for rejecting to hand over documents showing the member states' positions on current issues.

"It was naïve to hope that the Swedish tradition of openness and transparency would be exported to Europe. This test shows that unfortunately our fears have come true - political considerations determine which documents will be handed over, not concrete rules that authorities as well as citizens can comply with. This attitude is a breeding ground for arbitrariness", says Agneta Lindblom Hulthén, president of the Swedish Union of Journalists.

"From a democratic point of view it is a cause for unrest that it is so difficult for individual citizens to get information about the standpoints and actions of their elected representatives", says Agneta Lindblom Hulthén.

The new rules give no help at all to interested citizens who wish to read proposals for decisions on sensitive issues, such as actions against terrorism. The security rules that the EU inherited from NATO govern the application of the rules of access to documents.

But the secrecy is not absolute. The test also shows that appealing and arguing against routine rejections can pay.

Agneta Lindblom Hulthén:

"The lesson to be learned from this test is that journalists must not give up. We must persist in demanding information to move forward. It's the only way to fight the European illness of secrecy. It's my impression that the rules are not applied in the way they were supposed to be, so that's our first demand. Once that has been achieved, we know if we have to go further and demand that the rules be changed again."

Freelance journalist Staffan Dahllöf carried out the test. By direction of the Swedish Union of Journalists he tried to get access to documents concerning three current political issues:

Which additives will be allowed in animal feedstuff?

What is behind the proposal about terrorist profiling?

What kind of fish can be caught and bought next year?

He demanded the handing over of documents from the Secretariat General of the Council of Ministers in Brussels. The secretariat's rejections were appealed to the Council. The Council confirmed the rejections, with only two exceptions: Sweden's and the Netherlands' views on fishing.

Despite the fact that these issues are much debated and the political differences being well known, it remains unclear which arguments were really used in the decisive negotiations in the Council of Ministers. The new rules on openness still provide full protection for the traditionally closed European Union.

The test shows that increased publication on the Internet has made it easier to search for and to demand access to specific documents, but the conclusion is nevertheless that

Openness in the sense of the citizens´ right to access to documents has not been increased by the rules adopted during the Swedish presidency (Regulation 1049/2001).

The "right" to access is subordinated to political judgements.

The regulation is subordinated to the security rules that the Council of Ministers took over from NATO two years ago, just like the European Parliament and others feared.

How the investigation was made is explained in a report, which also accounts for and comments on the various arguments for refusal made by the instances of the Council of Ministers.

The Report from the Swedish Union of Journalists