Official report on the debate from the European Parliament

Michael CASHMAN (PES, West Midlands)
Report on the proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council regarding public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents
Part 1: Draft legislative Resolution
Committee on Citizens' Freedoms and Rights, Justice and Home Affairs
Part 2: Explanatory Statement
Doc :
Procedure : Codecision procedure (1st reading)
Debate : 02.05.2001

Opening the debate on public access to EU documents, Michael CASHMAN (PES, West Midlands) stated that he was happy to ask the House to endorse the compromise that had been reached between Parliament, Council and Commission. He believed that the essential elements of Parliament's position had been maintained. A key priority had been to reach agreement in line with the Amsterdam Treaty deadline. Mr Cashman argued that the accord improved and consolidated the status quo. He believed that the text would be "self-evolving" and that access to documents would continue to improve. He welcomed the fact that citizens would not have to rely on the goodwill of the institutions, which they could now hold to account. He accepted the need to protect EU security but underlined that exceptions would be discretionary and not mandatory. There would be a presumption in favour of access. Mr Cashman welcomed in particular the requirement on the institutions to provide a register of documents and to publish an annual report on access.

Following the debate he rejected allegations from some speakers that smaller political groups had been excluded from the negotiation process. All matters had been discussed within the Committee of Citizens' Freedoms and Rights, he underlined.

Mr Cashman's line was echoed by Hanja MAIJ-WEGGEN (EPP-ED, NL) for the Constitutional Affairs Committee who stressed that transparency was the best way to combat cronyism. In particular, she welcomed the fact that there were very few limitations on disclosure; the fact that EU agencies were also required to provide information; and that the "loophole" that had led to the "Solana decision" had been plugged. In conclusion, Mrs Maij-Weggen argued that the compromise was not perfect but that it was good to get something now which could be reviewed later. At the end of the debate she stressed that the agreement did not represent a step backwards.

A different note was struck by Heidi Anneli HAUTALA (Greens/EFA, FIN) who cautioned that Parliament should be very careful before it endorsed this compromise Holding up a Russian matryoshka doll she warned of shadow regulations within regulations that would prevent access to documents. Indeed, she argued, the Solana declaration would be shored up. Mrs Hautala believed that Parliament should have got more out of the agreement and ensured comprehensive access to documents.

There was a welcome however, for the agreement from Britta LEJON for Council who argued that it was a "decisive step forward". At present, she said, many citizens felt that the EU was too bureaucratic. She was glad that there were now general rules on access to documents that would prevent abuse of power. She noted that her country was in the vanguard over the question of document access. In particular she welcomed the fact that any application for a document would have to be dealt with within a period of 15 working days. In conclusion she stressed that the compromise enhanced the democratic legitimacy of the EU.

For the Commission, Michel BARNIER welcomed the agreement and what he called a "clear and balanced text". Considerable progress had been made during the negotiations with the result that the compromise edged towards the provisions applied in the most advanced state as far as transparency was concerned. Nevertheless, he recognised it would not satisfy everyone but on balance felt it was the best possible compromise and was able to say that the Commission could accept all amendments. It would, of course, have far reaching implications for the Commission in the sense that it was the institution that produced most documents, but the aim would be to provide a true service to citizens and other institutions. The Commission, he added, was determined to see that the agreement was applied in a diligent and effective way. Charlotte CEDERSCHIÖLD (EPP- ED, S) too said the new agreement moved towards the Swedish principle on transparency, although these were exceptions on security, confidentiality and personal data grounds. Each decision had to be considered on a case-by-case basis and a request could only be refused it there was proof that it could damage an institution and she urged MEPs to back it. In addition, a register would be kept on the Internet. Supporting the agreement on behalf of the PES, Margrietus van den BERG (NL) pointed out that it would not apply to confidential documents emanating from a third party i.e. a Member State or NATO. For the Liberals, Jan-Kees WIEBENGA (NL) was too able to endorse the agreement but he too recognised that there were exceptions. Nevertheless, it should be seen as the beginning not the end of the story. For the Green, however, Kathalijne Maria BUITENWEG (NL) objected to the agreement. While she recognised that there could be confidentiality in, for example, the area of defence she did not think there was clarity with regard to certain sensitive documents. Pernille FRAHM (EUL/NGL, DK) was sceptical about the agreement and did not see any real gains on the present situation but nevertheless looked to changes at the review stage in 2004. In supporting the maximum amount of openness, Ole KRARUP (EDD, DK) was concerned about secrecy clauses which he felt went against democracy.

Graham WATSON (ELDR, South West), the Chair of the Committee of Citizens' Freedoms and Rights, was another speaker to welcome the agreement. It represented a change in culture from secrecy to openness, he argued. Reaching a compromise was vital, he said, as one should not "make the best the enemy of the good". He believed now that a searchlight should be shone into the "darker areas of decision making" within the EU.

Glyn FORD (PES, South West) considered that the agreement did not go as far as he would have liked but that it had gone further than he expected. MEPs had a window of opportunity at this moment, he emphasised, and it was not guaranteed that it would remain open for ever. He welcomed in particular the requirement for an annual report and the assumption of access. The agreement did not represent complete freedom of information, he noted, but it did mean freer information. It was not an end in itself, he concluded, but the end of the beginning on the road to transparency.