Is Openness a Forgotten Finnish Priority?

Which should be the priorities of the Finnish government during its EU Presidency regarding transparency and access to documents? First of all, a new code on access to documents has to be put into motion now. Transparency has become one of the main principles of the European Union with the entry into force of the Amsterdam Treaty. It is the task of the Finnish Presidency to start implementing the new provisions and speed up the process leading to the adoption of new rules. [:] The Finnish government, together with the European Parliament and civil society groups, should continue to press the European Commission to publish a Communication on a Regulation for Access to Documents as soon as possible. The Commission has been reluctant to move forward in this and many other key issues since its resignation on 16 March. The acting Commission submitted a draft discussion paper for a Conference on Transparency, which was organized by a number of MEPs and civil society groups on 26 April in the European Parliament. Since then, nothing has happened. We have been informed that internal divisions on how to define confidential documents are delaying the process. I would like to express my support for the position of the Finnish government, insisting that the Communication is only a discussion document. It does not have to include all the issues now. It is essential that civil society groups, such as the Europan Federation of Journalists, have a greater say during the whole preparatory process leading to the adoption of the new Regulation. The new provisions of the Amsterdam Treaty regarding the co-decision will apply also to the adoption of the Regulation on Access to Documents. This means that the Parliament will be on an equal footing with the Council during the decision-making process. I hope that the European Parliament and the next EU Presidencies will intensify their dialogue and cooperation. The aim should be to find an agreement at the earliest possible stage, avoiding as far as possible lengthy and complicated conciliation procedures. The Council is likely to find it much harder than the Parliament to find an agreement on the scope of the new Regulation. The Council Presidencies should be prepared to mediate and facilitate potential clashes resulting differences between administrative cultures of different Member States. The European Parliament has already agreed on the principles which should be included into the Commission’s proposal. An own-initiative report by Ms Maj-Lis Lööw on openness within the EU institutions was adopted by the Parliament with an overwhelming majority in January 1999.

The key demands of the Parliament are: The new Regulation should not apply only to the European Commission, the Council and the European Parliament, but to all EU institutions and bodies. All documents held by the institutions should fall within the scope of the new code. There should be a more precise definition of documents. The word “document” should comprise all means of communication, including all important working documents. All institutions should establish public registers for all incoming and outgoing documents. The registers should include classified documents, with an indication that they are considered as confidential. The registers should be placed on the Internet. The current exceptions to openness need to be more tightly defined. The notion of “public interest” is not enough, but restrictions have to be more detailed and better reasoned. Requested documents should also be transmitted in an electronic form, whenever possible. A policy of partial access should be applied in cases where vital interests are so strong that they must be assigned priority over the interest of citizen in securing access.

The role of the European Ombudsman: The European Ombudsman has given an important contribution to the debate and practise on transparency in the European Union. One of his biggest victories has been the creation of a public register of the Council third pillar measures, which is available on the Internet. The European Parliament, in particular the Committee on Petitions, has enjoyed a close and excellent cooperation with the office of Mr Söderman. Mr Söderman’s own initiative inquiry into public access to documents was supported last year by the Committee on Petitions and the report of Ms Astrid Thors. A number of demands presented by the Ombudsman are similar to those of the European Parliament. In February, for example, the Ombudsman called on the European Commission to establish a public register for all incoming and outgoing documents. He has also written to the European Central Bank to inquire whether they have already adopted rules on public access to documents.

The role of the Court of Justice: During the past few years, the European Court of Justice has promoted transparency through a number of rulings, in particular in the field of justice and home affairs. The success stories include cases brought up by Statewatch, Swedish Journalist Union and Steve Peers. Each of these victories helped to limit the Council’s tendency to refuse access to documents. Case Hautala vs. Council – the first ever transparency case in the field of foreign and security policy – will be concluded by the Court of First Instance in Luxembourg on 19 July 1999.

Another Finnish priority should be to promote greater openness in the institutions’ decision-making and administration. The preparations for a new Intergovernmental Conference will be launched during the Finnish Presidency. In this context, Finland should promote improvements in the transparency of the EU’s over-complicated institutional structure. This means the simplification of the EU’s legislative, budgetary and comitology procedures. The Council of Ministers should adopt new Rules of Procedures as soon as possible to implement the provisions on transparency of the Amsterdam Treaty. The minutes of the meetings of the Council of Ministers and the voting behavior of the individual Member States should be made public. More transparency should be included in the meetings of the Council working groups and in the Commission as part of the comitology procedure. Also the Coreper tends to be very secretive. The Commission should hold public hearings and inquiries more frequently, also in the Member States. Following the Paul van Buitenen -case, we need a better protection for whistleblowers. The civil servants must not be subjects to reprisal when they inform the Parliament and legal authorities on irregularities and fraud. A whistleblower article should be included in the EU staff regulation in accordance with the Swedish law on whistleblowers and the UK “Public Disclosure Act”. To create an open administrative culture, we need to train civil servants. Powers will have to be decentralised, so that staff members feel responsible for decisions and control. During the past legislative term, nepotism and deals between the two biggest political groups were flourishing also in the European Parliament’s administration. Promotions have to follow clear and transparent procedures. We should get rid of political interference in promotions in all the institutions.