EUROPEAN journalists have accused European Union military and political leaders of a "summertime coup" against greater transparency in government following a decision in Brussels to slip through new rules on public access to documents during the holiday season.
A meeting of top-level representatives European Union member states has adopted new rules on public access to documents and plans to use a "written procedure" to have them introduced, thus bypassing the European Parliament, the European Commission and the next meeting of the Council of Ministers in September.
"This outrageous action brings in secrecy by the back door and undermines the commitment in the Amsterdam Treaty which enshrines public right of access to European Union documents," said Aidan White, General Secretary of the European Federation of Journalists. "It is a summertime-coup that may compromise democratic accountability in the European Union."
Under the new Code the public will not be allowed access to documents "classified as top secret, secret and confidential in the fields of foreign policy, military and non-military crisis management".
"This is a NATO-backed declaration of war on open government," said the EFJ, "we understand why military and security people want to minimise public scrutiny, but they are riding roughshod over the democratic process and international agreements in the process."
The EFJ believes that existing rules and the exceptions proposed under a draft Code already proposed by the Commission are more than adequate to meet security needs.
The meeting in Brussels throws into confusion the process of defining new rules of public access to information in the European Union. The Commission's proposals for a new Code are being discussed within the European Parliament under a co-decision process with the Council of Ministers. The latest action - backed by NATO member states and prompted by the possibility of strengthening common security policy within the EU - puts a question mark over co-decision arrangements.
Ten governments voted for the new Code at the Committee of Brussels-based permanent representatives of the 15 member states (COREPER). Only one NATO state - the Netherlands - broke ranks and opposed the move. They were joined in voting against by Sweden and Finland.
Dutch journalists and those from Nordic countries are particularly incensed by the move that threatens long-established access rules in these countries. The Dutch Union of Journalists, the NVJ, has publicly condemned the decision.
"We all recognise the need for secrecy when lives are at risk, but this new code goes much further and introduces a broad brush of definitions that are unclear and will contaminate many non-military documents," said Aidan White. "If adopted in this form it will bring more secrecy into public life in Europe, not less. We shall fight it all of the way."
The EFJ is calling on its member organisations to fight the proposal at national level. Under the written procedure, the new code will be agreed unless a majority of national states register objections.