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EU Parliament Approves Transparency Rule Changes

Source: freedominfo.org

Date: 15 December 2011

The European Parliament Dec. 15 voted 394-197, with 35 abstentions, to approve proposals to improve the EU’s access to documents rules.

The 2-1 majority action advances the process to the stage of difficult negotiations with the EU Commission and EU Council.

During debate Dec. 14, Maroš Šefčovič, the European commissioner for inter-institutional relations and administration, said that the Commission could not accept many of the changes being proposed, according to a report in European Voice. He said: “This agreement risks taking time and I am afraid that, given the amendments proposed in the report, agreement on changes to the regulations is not within reach. I cannot of course anticipate the position that the Council will take on the proposed amendments but many of them cannot be accepted by the Commission.”

The vote in Strasbourg advances amendments put forward by UK member of parliament Michael Cashman and recently approved by the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee. (See previous reports in FreedomInfo.org.)

”Only through transparency can citizens participate in an informed way in the democratic process, which is even more important in the current crisis,” Cashman said in the debate.

Most of the opposition came from members of the major party group EPP (European People’s Party – Christian Democrats). The proposals were supported by the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the Liberals, the Greens, and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). Several proposed amendments were defeated.

The reforms would broaden the definition of what constitutes a document and what information should be made available. It would make the access rules media neutral.

Making some alterations concerning exceptions, the proposal would also provide that the exceptions would not apply if there is an “overriding public interest in disclosure.” All preparatory legislative drafts, memos and legal opinions would be made public. Institutions would  have to standardize the classification of internal documents such as EU top secret, EU confidential or EU-restricted.

Access Info Europe, ClientEarth and Greenpeace welcomed the outcome, praising these “positive aspects” of the European Parliament’s position:

-           Improved definition of a document which covers electronic systems, including databases stored on “off-site” servers;

-           Expanded scope of the right of access to documents to cover all EU bodies in line with the Lisbon Treaty;

-           Strikes the right balance between EU institutions’ “Space to think” and transparency of the legislative process required by the Lisbon Treaty;

-          Upholds the pro-transparency decisions of the European Court of Justice, particularly on disclosure of legal opinions issued in the course of legislative procedures;

-          Rejects the member state transparency veto proposed by the Commission, which could have been based on weak national access to information laws;

-          Ensures a rapid appeal process for members of the public denied information: confirmatory applications will still need to be responded to within 15 working days;

-          Establishes Information Officers to improve efficiency in responding to requests from the public;

-          Preserves existing legitimate exceptions which protect privacy, business secrets, and genuinely sensitive information in the context of competition and staff cases whilst ensuring that information which should be made public is automatically released.

See Wobbing Europe’s story for a somewhat less enthusiastic review of the proposals. “It is therefore difficult to see if the Parliament actually pushes the frontline towards more transparency, or merely defends old victories,” wrote Staffan Dahllöf.