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Discussion on Commission plans to reduce public access to documents

The adoption of Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 on public access to documents held by the EU institutions was a benchmark in the long battle towards a more transparent European Union. In guaranteeing the “widest possible access to documents”, the Regulation establishes that Union documents are, as a main rule, available for the public. The right to access Union documents can be limited, when necessary, by reference to certain carefully limited criteria.

On 30 April 2008, the Commission proposed to reform Regulation 1049/2001. The stated objective is “increased transparency, increased access and increased outreach and understanding.”

However, many of the core elements of the proposal have been criticized by some of the Member States, Members of The European Parliament, and civil society. It has become apparent that the proposed amendments, while containing certain positive elements, are more likely to narrow the right of access to documents. If adopted as such, the proposal would constitute a significant step backwards as regards transparency in the European Union.

Because of these concerns, the Parliament of Finland and the Finish Ministry of Justice have jointly organized a panel discussion on 11 December in Brussels, which HEAL attended. It was meant to offer a forum for seeking alternative solutions to the challenges identified by the Commission.

The invited speakers included MEP’s, Finnish Ministers, people working in the Council, academics and the EU ombudsman. Almost unanimously, they expressed serious concerns about the Commission’s proposal.

The speakers discussed the merits of the current Regulation and pointed to the fact that the Regulation is fine as it is and actually doesn’t need a recast. It was also said that the Commission’s recast-proposal will lead to a significantly reduced access to Union documents, which will jeopardize the legitimacy and accountability of the European institutions and the ability for democratic scrutiny.

The problems identified in the Commission’s proposal include the definition of a “document” (which will be narrowed), the access to electronic databases and legal documents and Member States’ right to veto access to certain documents.

The speakers also made suggestions to improve the access to documents. Tony Bunyan, of Statewatch, suggested that there should be a possibility to request all the documents related to a certain subject (as opposed to explicitly having to give the reference of the exact document one wants). He also proposed that when the Commission issues a press release, all the relevant documents should be published on the same webpage at the time of the release, so as to allow journalists to verify the content of the press release.

The seminar was closed by Jacob Söderman, Vice-Chairman of the Constitutional Law Committee of the Parliament of Finland and the first European Ombudsman. Söderman reiterated the call of the other speakers to the Commission not to adopt the new proposal. He called the proposal an assault on citizen’s rights and emphasised the importance of transparency. Free access to documents is essential, because it is only on the basis of these documents that broad public debate on policy issues can take place. This is a fundamental feature of a democratic society.

What is at stake is citizens’ fundamental right to know - nothing more, nothing less.

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Written on 15 December 2008.

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