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Press release

Access to EU documents: not enough transparency, says Ombudsman

Institutions - 30-11-2007 - 10:18
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Does the public really have transparent, effective access to the documents of the EU institutions? The view of the European Ombudsman, who on Thursday appeared before the EP Civil Liberties Committee, is that the current system suffers from a lack of clarity and a shortage of resources, and needs to provide better access. MEPs are drafting an own-initiative report which is expected to call for a review of the current rules.

The Ombudsman, Nikiforos Diamandouros, described to MEPs the shortcomings of the rules on access to Community documents, as a result of which around sixty cases have been addressed to him.  A number of these complaints show that the argument of a risk of "serious undermining of the decision-making process" laid down in the regulation to justify such refusals is in fact used far too often owing to the desire of the institutions - in particular the Council - to hold certain discussions in private.  Mr Diamandouros believes the regulation should either define more clearly what is meant by serious undermining of the decision-making process or require the institutions to give their reasons for invoking this rule.
The Ombudsman also stressed that the reason of "overriding public interest", which can be invoked to justify access to restricted documents, should be clarified. He suggested setting up an independent outside mechanism to be used in such cases.
In addition, Mr Diamandouros argued that the regulation should require a review of the confidentiality clauses laid down in Community law, which he believes are interpreted too broadly by the Commission. "The exceptions should be more restricted.  Those which do not correspond exactly to the cases provided for by the regulation must be considered inapplicable", he said.
Parliamentary report in the pipeline
Tony Bunyan, of the NGO Statewatch, expressed astonishment that documents relating to negotiations between the European Union and the United States could not be accessed. "The situation is getting ridiculous. We have growing problems to access documents from third countries at the Council", he said, adding that these were mainly US documents on negotiations with the EU on the area of Freedom, Security and Justice. It often seemed that the Council was hiding US documents not because the content was controversial in itself but rather in order to conceal the major influence that the US government has on EU legislation, he suggested. "It's as if the United States were the 28th Member State of the Union".
Mr Bunyan also stated that the difficulties of access related chiefly to documents of the Commission and not those of Parliament or the Council.
Parliament's rapporteur on transparency, Marco Cappato (ALDE, IT), backed the Ombudsman's views on the need for further transparency, saying "We need to evolve towards real freedom of information in the EU institutions". Regarding the inability of the institutions to meet deadlines for handing over documentation, he said: "I don't want to talk about sanctions but failure to meet deadlines should trigger some consequences".
Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs
In the chair : Kinga Gál (EPP-ED, HU)
REF.: 20071126IPR13593