|Openness and easy access to information held by public authorities lie at the heart of any functioning democracy. Without this, governments and public administrations cannot be held to account. The Treaty of Amsterdam therefore laid down in 1999 that any citizen of the European Union should have a "right of access" to EU documents. Even so, the European Parliament had to pull out all the stops to have this principle translated into law.
When MEPs saw in January 2000 the draft law on public access to EU documents being proposed by the European Commission, they were deeply disappointed. Until then, the three institutions concerned - Parliament, Council of Ministers and Commission - had voluntary systems in place to provide public information and the new law actually seemed like a step backwards.
Too many exemptions
Parliament decided that the number of exemptions being proposed by the Commission, i.e. cases where documents could be withheld from the public, should be scaled down significantly. It was particularly opposed to allowing exemptions on the grounds that “the effective functioning of the institutions” might be undermined and also to exempting a wide range of internal documents. MEPs did understand why the Commission was unwilling to have to make public each and every idea - be it brilliant or hare-brained - that an official might put to paper or write down in an e-mail in the process of policy-making. They therefore agreed that the Commission should have some “space to think” - as this principle came to be called - but they rejected the idea of a general list that would have justified keeping almost any document secret.
In November 2000, Parliament substantially amended the original Commission proposal. The next stage was for the legislation to come before the EU governments, meeting in the Council of Ministers. A number of Member States were particularly anxious to preserve a high degree of secrecy for foreign policy and judicial matters. However, the governments were divided. Some did not have their own national legislation on public information while others had a long tradition of openness and disclosure. In the end Parliament was able to exploit these divisions to expand the range of documents to be made public.
Knowing that the governments held different views, Parliament pitched its negotiating position in such a way as to get just enough Member States on its side within the Council. In the process Parliament worked closely with the Swedish government, which was president of the EU Council for the first six months of 2001 and which put great pressure on the other governments to come to an agreement. After Parliament had secured a deal with Council, the Commission finally agreed with the text.
And so, in May 2001 the regulation on “public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents” was signed into law. This means that any member of the public can now look on the internet to see what documents are available from these three institutions. Thanks to Parliament the regulation will also apply to EU agencies such as the European Environment Agency, the Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction and the Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products. The definition of “documents” not only includes those produced by these institutions but also those received from third parties. And they may consist of texts on paper, electronic information or audio or video recordings. Even classified documents can be listed - with the consent of “the originator”.
Grounds for refusal
Documents may be requested through the internet or by letter and an answer must be given within 15 working days. If access to a document is refused, reasons must be stated. An applicant may ask for a refusal to be reconsidered. If the request is still not granted, the applicant may then go to court or lodge a complaint with the European Ombudsman.
Access to information may only be refused if its disclosure would undermine the public interest in the areas of public security, defence and military matters, international relations or the monetary and economic policy of the EU or a Member State or if it would infringe the right to privacy. Also, if the disclosure of information would undermine an individual’s or a company’s commercial interests, or any court proceedings and investigations or audits, this may constitute grounds for denying access unless there is an overriding public interest in disclosure.
In the first year since the new law came into force, the number of applications has more than doubled.