Citizens have the right to know

Europe is facing its biggest crisis since the Second World War. Not only eurozone, but also the whole European Union is in danger. According to the latest “Eurobarometer 75″ survey citizens have less and less trust in European institutions. This is worrying.

The EU cannot success in the longer term without the trust of its citizens. Citizens are not sure if European leaders are able to solve the economical crisis. But behind scenes there are also much more worries. One of the biggest problems in the EU Institutions is that they are lacking transparency. Without transparency, democracy is impossible.

Transparency requires that the decisions are open to public scrutiny and that the public has a right to access such information. Unfortunately, the European Union can hardly brag about its transparency. The Regulation 1049/2001 on access to the EU documents needs to be changed, but so do attitudes.

New Europe published an important article on the access to the EU documents in its number 963 (Nov 27 – Dec 3, page 7). Rapporteur Michael Cashman (UK, S&D) was interviewed with whom I have had great pleasure to work. As was mentioned in the article, the civil liberties committee (LIBE) of European Parliament voted on the public access to documents on the 23rd of November. The committee passed the report through by 33 votes to 17, with two abstentions. Only EPP Group voted against.

The whole Parliament is about to vote on the report in December. However, EPP would like to postpone the vote, since the Group is not in favour of more access to documents. The position of EPP is in contradiction with the Treaty of Lisbon.

It has brought the importance of transparency to a new level. The article 10/TEU, Paragraph 3 states that: “Every citizen shall have the right to participate in the democratic life of the Union. Decisions shall be taken as openly and as closely as possible to the citizen”. The Treaty of Lisbon has also enlarged the scope of the Regulation 1049/2001 on access to the EU documents.

Previously the Treaty demanded transparency only from the Parliament, Council, and Commission. Now transparency applies not only to the EU Institutions but also to the bodies, offices, and agencies of the EU.

Additionally, the Treaty of Lisbon made the Charter of Fundamental Rights legally binding. Its article 42 emphasises the importance of the principle of publicity. Therefore, it should be clear that citizens have the right to know how the legislation is made. Contrary to the commission, the LIBE has given strong support for the European Court of Justice (ECJ) landmark ruling on the so-called Turco case.

In this judgment, the ECJ called on the Council to strengthen “the democratic right of European citizens to scrutinise the information which has formed the basis of a legislative act”. This would work by giving access to the documents (such as the legal service opinions) which have been excluded in order to “protect” the institution’s decision-making process. I agree with the ECJ that such a justification may no longer be invoked to outweigh the overriding principle ensuring democratic control by the EU citizens of the EU legislative process. I am pleased that the LIBE is proposing a broader definition for the documents than what the commission was originally proposing.

The broad definition of a document includes “any data content whatever its medium”. The Commission’s proposal would have weakened the basic structure of the transparency regulation. It means, firstly, the broad definition of documents. And secondly, the requirement that exceptions from the rule of transparency are based on a clearly delimited in case judgments.

From my point of view it is clear that the proposal to narrow the definition of documents and other proposals to weaken transparency would be incompatible with the Treaty of Lisbon.

I hope that the Cashman/Jäätteenmäki report approved by LIBE committee will serve as a basis for a common position to be reached under Danish EU presidency in the first half of 2012. In democracy the citizens have simply the right to know.

Published in New Europe 5.12.2011