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Public access to parliament, council and commission documents - Consideration of working document and of the 2nd version of the draft report

On October 3 the LIBE committee considered the draft report by Michael Cashman (S&D, UK) on public access to EU documents. The discussion was held short, but focused on the fact that a report already was drafted under the previous parliamentary term. The final vote was postponed and the file referred to this parliamentary term.

Michael Cashman (S&D, UK) said he has been going through the usual process. There have been no moves within the commission or council on this matter. The commission has brought forward a second proposal. Following discussions, those two proposals would be merged. Thereby a new report will come about. Cashman recalled the Sargentini-Hautala report. The legal service has to reflect on whether the agencies set up by the commission should be referred to in the regulation. The legal opinion says that article 15 directly provides that EU institutions, bodies, offices and agencies should comply with the law on access to documents. The legal service referred to rule 34 of the parliament's rules of procedures which says that when the two proposals have been submitted, parliament shall deal with them in a single report. Some amendments to the document directly implement the agreement dating back to the Sargentini-Hautala report. The majority of the political parties support that approach. Cashman said the shadows rapporteurs have concerns the parliament is going too far in its claims. This is emulating from the resolutions adopted by parliament.


Mark Maes from the commission's General Secretariat said that the commission aims at implementing article 15.3 and leave the rest open. The commission considers that the minimum requirements of the treaty change are implemented immediately. This is what commissioner Sefcovic has said in the plenary debate regarding access to documents. The commission did not comment on the amendments.


Renate Sommer (EPP, DE) said this could be brought into the realm of the European Court of Justice. We should start with the first proposal and deal with the second later. That is in line with the view of the AFCO committee. That would mean there are two parallel pieces of legislation. There is the opinion of the legal service. There are many points not directly linked to access of documents and there is a confusion here mixing inter-institutional agreements. It is a matter of intellectual property. One must be careful there. The commission says there are public requests and the files are very extensive. It is not so much about the size but the content of the documents to be made public. We need specific rules outside these regulations. The report is a bit slimmer than before. The changes are largely cosmetic. Everything is terribly unclear. The demand for a single portal for access to documents is difficult to formulate. The report has not changed that much. It seems the rapporteur is forcing council to negotiations. The legal problem will remain until there is an agreement. She expressed support for the parliament's first report from 2009. "We want public access to documents, but it must be restricted or otherwise there will be an avalanche. The most important thing is to implement the judgement of the Court of Justice which means that the regulation must be rewritten as it was in the second proposal. AFCO proposed to take the second report as a priority and not together with the previous report. This requires a majority decision. We would have achieved nothing in terms of public information then.


Cecilia Wikström (ALDE, SE) said ALDE can support many of the changes proposed. Who owns these documents? Is it us or the citizens who can claim ownership to documents that affect them? We have to do all we can to increase transparency. The Court of Justice is in fact lagging behind in terms of transparency. There is a general presumption that means that as soon as a document belongs to a certain category, the document will be kept secret. That contradicts the essence of the regulation. We have to treat each application individually.


Cornelis de Jong (GUE/NGL, NL) said he does not understand the discussion. Every Eurobarometer shows that the general public turns its back on the EU. Lots of things deserve the interest of our citizens. There are groups and interests that take effort to ask for something and then they face a wall of secrecy. This is so important. To make something of the EU, there has to be openness. The definitions are still difficult and vague. Some terms that are used still give rise to interpretations that block information going to the citizen. There are worries regarding the costs for citizens and problems that requests have to be so precise. Even if you do not know the number of a document or whether it exists, one should be able to request it.


Sonia Alfano (ALDE, IT) said there will not be democracy if we do not allow access to documents. Transparency is essential to fight corruption. Many paragraphs deal with fighting corruption. We must seek to show and trace the use of European funds. Access to documents is a good way of demonstrating how public affairs can be managed with a view to public interest.


Sophie in't Veld (ALDE, NL) said we know that governments abuse rules on confidentiality to cover up things that they have done. We have seen that in the case of the CIA rendition and the European terrorist finance-tracking programme (TFTP). Before that, the legal department of the council issued a legal opinion that would be very relevant. However, despite requests the parliament was not given access to it and the case is now before the ECJ. Council said it could not be published, because it would disturb the negotiations with the US. However, council came up with a new justification, because now an EU TFTP is proposed the document must remain secret! Relevant documents for a debate should be public. Citizens have the right to know. Relevant information is kept from the parliament deliberately. That is abuse of the rules.

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Michael Cashman (S&D, UK) referred to the previous report from 2009. Most amendments are now redundant. There has been no ECJ judgement on the effects of 'lisbonisation'. On the issue of legal opinions, this is about politics and taking a political direction. Clarity must be achieved. We may depart from the same approach, but we should first look at what we can approve. A majority of the political parties have some distance to the rapporteur's approach. Somebody has to negotiate with council. The presumption of secrecy cannot be accepted. If we had a central registry, we could grant access easier.


Regarding the previous amendments, the whole issue of Lisbon would be dealt with in an addendum. But why did the commission wait 18 months for this? The parliament took its time to negotiate. We are directly elected to do that job. The parliament is treated at its convenience when it so suits member states and that should not be. It is about co-legislation, not auto-legislation on the part of the council.


Renate Sommer (EPP, DE) said it is not about keeping documents away from the public. Meeting documents are available. You can follow every meeting on the internet. There is no parliament as transparent as this one. She said she is keen on lobby registers. We cannot criticize European institutions for hiding. Some things have to be left to the member states. Not everything dealt with can be public from the start. We must respect the judgement of the ECJ.

 Michael Cashman (S&D, UK) said the parliament's political and institutional powers should be mobilized for the negotiations with council and commission.

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