Openness requires a change of attitude in the European Commission

Access to documents is a fundamental right of the citizen and it should become a key tool in increasing transparency in the European Union.[:] Increasing transparency and openness in the European Union’s administration and decision-making process was made one of the priorities of Mr Prodi’s Commission after the Santer Commission had failed in this crucial task. A recent exchange of opinions between Mr Prodi and Mr Söderman, European Ombudsman, shows that only little, if nothing, has changed. The Commission still tends to shunt controversies, it is extremely concerned about its public image, and even offended by differing viewpoints expressed by out-of-House experts. The draft Regulation on access to documents was released in the end of January with great expectations. To the disappointment of many Members of the European Parliament, Member States and representatives of civil society, the Commission’s proposal was not seen to contribute to any significant improvement in the lack of transparency. On the contrary, as the European Ombudsman has correctly pointed out, its catch-all list of exceptions could potentially include each and every document. Incoming documents could be declared secret by the third party which submits the document. Moreover, the principle of loyalty, binding on all Member States, could endanger more open national legislations. It seems that the President of the European Commission has been ill-informed about the actual content of the Commission’s proposal as well as on the process leading to its adoption. Mr Prodi’s views on the nature of exceptions and the so called “harm test” do not correspond with the principle of widest possible access.

Nor should Mr Prodi take credit for a conference which was organised in April last year in the European Parliament by three political groups, the European Federation of Journalists and Statewatch. The main achievement of this conference was the dumping of a poor, unpublished working paper by the European Commission which had been prepared in secret, and leaked to Statewatch, like so many other preparatory documents before. A large amount of discretion is likely to remain in the hands of the officials of the European institutions who apply the law, even after the new Regulation has entered into force. The new Regulation should, however, enable citizens, who seek the disclosure of a specific document, to become less dependent on the goodwill of the officials exercising discretion on behalf of the institution. The present practise based on leaks and privileged access is regarded surprisingly normal – in particular by those journalists who have succeeded in establishing special contacts and defend secrecy in the name of free competition on news. The biased system may have already created dangerous liaisons of loyalty between the institutions and the media which should serve as the Union’s watchdog. Transparency requires a fundamental change of attitude within the Commission and other institutions.

For too long, the European Union has been an elitist project, whose institutions have been more interested in realising their own visions rather than those of its citizens. Citizens have not been considered as subjects of the decision-making process, seldom even as objects, but rather as an interfering element. The arrogant behaviour of the Commission’s services has traditionally led to conflicts with the public, journalists and others who dare to believe that an open debate is a fundamental element of a democratic political culture. Let me give an example. In the unpublished draft Communication on access to documents, the European Commission proposed “that an ’embargo’ system be created to delay access to certain documents to avoid any interference in the decision-making process and to prevent premature publication of a document from giving rise to ‘misunderstandings’ or jeopardising the interests of the institution”. According to the Commission, the public should have access to preparatory documents only after the formal adoption of a decision by the Commission, or, where appropriate, the European Parliament or Council. In a democratic society, communications should not be limited to transmitting one-way information, or “explaining our policies better to the public”.

In a recent conference on an EU information and communications strategy which took place in Brussels on 9 March, it became evident that many citizens, organisations and interest groups do not necessarily appreciate the digested information produced by the European Commission. There are already enough leaflets, brochures and websites: “there is already too much information”, as one participant put it. What is missing, instead, is a real possibility for citizens to participate in the EU’s decision-making process – already in its preparatory stage and without any special justification. It is my firm belief that in addition to an increased use of the right of initiative by the European Parliament, we should widen the political rights of European citizens in a way which would enable the introduction of EU-wide citizens’ initiatives as well as popular consultations and referenda. The ongoing discussion on Austria shows that a European public space is indeed emerging, which increases hopes for greater citizens’ interest and involvement in politics.

EurActive, Strasbourg, 16 March 2000