Saturday, 14 March 2009

EU Council: Abandon all hope?

Abandon all hope, you who enter Justus Lipsius? The EU Council is better known for its adherence to opaque old style diplomacy than for embracing new school open governance, but even there you can find a glimmer of hope for the future.

Seven ministers

This call by seven ministers for the EU to make good its commitment to transparency was published by the European Voice 5 March 2009:

The EU's current rules on public access to documents held by EU institutions are based on the principles of openness and transparency, a crucial component of efforts to increase EU citizens' confidence in its institutions.

Under those rules, citizens can be denied access only if this can be justified based on a document's actual content. The experience of the past eight years has shown that this was a wise solution that was compatible with the objective of the regulation: to guarantee the "widest possible openness".

The Commission declared that it wanted to increase transparency even more when, in April 2008, it proposed revising that regulation. However, we and like-minded colleagues in the Council of Ministers are concerned that the proposal would have the opposite effect.

In many areas, the proposed reform seems aimed mainly at changing the current openness-oriented interpretation.

In negotiations within the Council, we have found ourselves defending the current level of access in many key areas, instead of discussing improvements to it. The risk we are facing is that entire categories of documents will be excluded from the scope of EU access rules. A good example of this is the idea of denying the public access to any documents relating to investigations run by the Commission - one of its core tasks. There are better ways of guaranteeing the smooth conduct of such investigations than by categorically excluding any possibility of public access.

We have also been surprised that the idea of reconstituting member states' absolute veto power over documents originating from them has gained some support not only in the Council, but also in the European Parliament. What would the EU's citizens have to gain from such reforms?

We are therefore glad to see that the Parliament's committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs adopted a report on 17 February that shares our vision of a more transparent Union. We also welcome the statement made by Margot Wallström, the Commission's vice-president, that the Commission is willing to reconsider those elements of its proposal that would constitute a step backward in terms of openness.
Some worries remain, including the proposed bloc exemptions of whole categories of documents. We need new ways of guaranteeing the Union's openness. This reform process should be about moving forward, not backward, in the process of opening up the EU - a Union "in which decisions are taken as openly as possible", as the EU treaty proudly declares. There are ways of responding to legitimate concerns that would be compatible with this principle of transparency - as the current regulation demonstrates, with its excellent balance between openness and the need for confidentiality.


Beatrice Ask
Minister of justice, Sweden

Tuija Brax
Minister of justice, Finland

Irma Pavlini Krebs
Minister of public administration, Slovenia

Rein Lang
Minister of justice, Estonia

Cecilia Malmström
Minister of EU affairs, Sweden

Per Stig Møller
Minister of foreign affairs, Denmark

Astrid Thors
Minister of migration and European affairs, Finland


Ralf Grahn