Report of meeting: Call for an Open Europe: views from civil society on access to EU documents

European Parliament, 27 February 2001

The meeting was organised by Statewatch and the European Federation of Journalists

The meeting on access to EU documents by citizens, in relation with the "call for on open Europe" campaign, took place on 27 February 2001 at the European Parliament.

Article 255 of the Amsterdam Treaty states that the EU has to adopt, by May 1st 2001, a code for access to EU documents. The meeting was opened with a welcoming by Tony Bunyan, Director of Statewatch, and Renate Schroeder, from the European Federation of Journalists.

Graham Watson, Chair of the Committee on Citizens Freedoms and Rights at the European Parliament, said that e-technologies should allow citizen to have access to all documents in a simple and efficient way. His mid-term objective is to make all documents available. For the time being, a short term solution is to follow the "best practice" of the EU member States. A very important issue in the current debate is the list of exceptions to the general principle of free access and the second delicate point is the fear of certain member States that the EU rules would be more restrictive than their own national laws and thus influence their legislatures in a negative way. It has been made clear in the past weeks that the EU code has no legal influence on national rules.

The representatives of the Swedish Presidency reminded that normally there is a deadline fixed at the 1 May for an agreement on the EU code for access to documents. He estimated that the Swedish Presidency is in a kind of "schizophrenic" position because the country is considered "extremist" on openness by its partners at the Council but on the other hand the Swedish opinion is very suspicious about the outcome at European level. The previous presidencies (France and Portugal) did not push the discussion forward and some points have not even been discussed at all. The French presidency made a "compromise proposal" in 2000 but even then the European Parliament needed a long delay to discuss it. Several points are very delicate: - the list of restrictions; - the treatment by "third parties" (i.e. Member States); - "sensitive" documents; - applicability in the member States The Presidency also regretted that other members of the Council were not represented at the meeting.

The Civil Society Panel expressed the lack of a clear Presidency-line, even now by Sweden. Though it has to defend its position at the Council and in the discussion with the other institutions. Björn Mansson, the Finnish representative of the EFJ, reminded the audience that journalists work for all citizens and that "transparency" involves reporting on the whole process of decision making. Sometimes, the rules and documents to access are too complicated and it is crucial for the EU to guarantee clear, precise and simple procedures. In any case, there should be no exception and the Swedish presidency has to find a European solution since it's not a matter of national interest but of citizens' interest.

Several other speakers agreed that the most important thing is not the deadline but the result. There is also a lack of impact assessment of the proposal: what will be its consequences, what is its impact on reality? Some points are not considered at all: the right of non-EU citizens, the time limits for requests or the classification of the documents.

Alf Lindberg, Swedish representative of the EFJ, stressed that in the past years the private area tends to become public (i.e. Big Brother) and at the opposite, the public sector tends to become privatised. To that extent, the proposal of the Commission is a disaster because there are much too many limitations and exceptions. At the same time, the EP failed to submit a clear and useful proposal.

Deirdre Curtin, from Utrecht University; called for a discussion in a broader context and to reconsider the deadline of 1 May : the political environment has changed since the proposal has first been drafted and the "post-Nice" situation requires a huge public debate on the future of the EU and very substantial things such as a European Constitution and a Charter of rights. In general, people want Europe to do more, not less. Moreover, the Commission is to issue a White Paper on Governance this summer and there is a clear and fundamental link with access to documents, which is a pillar of EU democracy.

In the general discussion that followed it was agreed that up to now the whole process has been a general failure. It should be started again and a general debate should take place at European level but also at national level within national Parliaments in order to put pressure on the members of the Council.

Heidi Hautala, MEP, estimated that the EP made a big mistake by introducing a classification similar to the one used by the NATO in its report: in the meantime the Commission and the Council adopted this procedure whereas there is still no official decision. On February 20, the Parliament discussed the "Cashman / Maj-Weggen" proposal. This text now requires comments and proposals of amendments by civil society and concerned people.

Mary Preston, from the General Secretariat of the Commission, estimated that article 255 and the initial proposal reflected the intentions of the Members States. Also there are a lot of States that are not interested in the issue.

In conclusion, Alf Lindberg said it is necessary for the EFJ to make a new statement on the issue to provoke fresh actions and responses from unions and concerned people on the issue of transparency and openness.