Report from EU Observer (www.euobserver.com), dated 4.5.01

Speaking at a press conference this afternoon, Thursday 3 May, Michael Cashman defended his report on public access to EU documents. "I accept none of the criticism levelled at this dossier," said Mr Cashman. "They have been levelled primarily by people who haven't taken the trouble, I believe, to read this important document from the first word to the last."

On Thursday, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to adopt Mr Cashman's report, with 400 votes cast in support and 85 against. The EPP (conservative), PSE (Socialist) and ELDR (Liberal) groups were in favour, the Greens/EFA, GUE (European United Left) and EDD (Europe of Democracies) groups voted against.

"It shows that on this issue the majority in the European Parliament are closer to the governments in the Council than they are to the people who they represent," said Statewatch editor, Tony Bunyan.

"Citizens and civil society were promised that the commitment in the Amsterdam Treaty would "enshrine" their rights of access to EU documents. Instead all three Brussels institutions have colluded, through secret negotiations rather than open procedures, to reach a deal that suits them."

The campaign for an "Open Europe", which has gathered in strength over the past two years, will have to continue its work. The call from civil society for an open, accountable and democratic Europe may have been ignored on this occasion but its case stands, unanswered," Mr Bunyan said.

Jens-Peter Bonde, MEP for the June Movement and Chairman of the EDD Group, has been one of the most vocal critics of the Cashman report. "I cannot support the new rules on transparency," said Mr Bonde, speaking at the plenary session on Wednesday, "because they stop the progression towards transparency."

Mr Bonde has been campaigning for greater transparency in the European Union for twenty years. He has written numerous texts on the subject and has repeatedly condemned the new regulations proposed by Mr Cashman as worse than the existing system. Mr Bonde urged the European Parliament not to support Mr Cashman's proposals, but in the event MEPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of the report.

Speaking to the EUobserver.com, Mr Cashman rejected Mr Bonde's arguments that the new rules will result in less, rather than more, transparency.

Mr Bonde insisted that the new rules will make documents that are public today in countries such as Sweden and Denmark inaccessible in the future. "This is simply not true," said Mr Cashman. "This is about access to EU documents. A national right to national documents cannot be affected."

Mr Cashman insisted that most documents will be open to the public. Those documents that will not be include documents dealing with public security, defence and military issues, international relations and so forth. "There is also an appeals process," Mr Cashman told the EUobserver.com. "If the EU opposes access to a certain document, the case can be taken to the Court of Justice or the Ombudsman." Also, said Mr Cashman, any abuses of the system will be picked up by the yearly review, in which each decision to refuse access to a document has to be justified.

Certain MEPs are critical of the need for an appeals process, arguing that taking a case to the European Court of Justice can be a costly and time-consuming affair.

Mr Cashman believes that Mr Bonde has misinterpreted what was in his report. "I know that Mr Bonde does not speak English as his first language," said Mr Cashman. "But in that case he really should have sought help from an English lawyer with the text. All of his arguments against the report are unfounded. He took a few points from the report and misrepresented them."

The Commission has said that it welcomes the adoption of the new rules by the European Parliament. "The establishment of clear rules for the citizen's access to documents is essential not only for the good functioning of the European institutions but also for re-enforcing the institutions' democratic legitimacy," declared Commissioner Michel Barnier, responsible for regional policy and institutional reform. He admitted that the new rules are not perfect from everybody's point of view, but said that be believed them to be a fair balance between the diverse traditions of member states. The Council of the European Union has also said that it welcome the new rules.

The new rules will be formally approved by the General Affairs Council on 14 May, according to Mr Cashman.

Written by Blake Evans-Pritchard
Edited by Daniela Spinant