Note sent to all MEPs prior to the vote on tne new code of access to EU documents:
From Michael Cashman MEP (PSE) Hanja Maij-Weggen MEP (PPE)
& Graham Watson MEP (ELDR)
Public Access to Documents
A vast improvement on the status quo
The agreement reached between the Parliament, the Council and the Commission, which will be before you for the vote on Thursday 3 May, is a breakthrough for the rights of the citizen. The proposals revolutionise the rights and procedures for access to documents of the EU institutions and are a first step in establishing a Freedom of Information act for EU citizens. It is a self-evolving text which can be, and will be, improved over time.
These proposals have received criticism from some in civil society for being a "step backward". We reject this criticism. The text is not perfect. We would have liked it to have gone further in some respects. We believe it represents the best deal possible at this stage considering the deadline set in the Treaty (1 May 2001) and the political distance between the three institutions and amongst Member States.
The proposal is not a step backward. It vastly improves upon and consolidates the status quo (including the Aarhus Convention) and establishes, for the first time, a right for all European citizens to have access to all documents held by the EU institutions, subject to limited exceptions. It is the first common framework for the three institutions which recognises the citizens' rights, so that the citizen will no longer have to rely on the good will of an institution.
A transparent process
The LIBE Committee organised and held a public hearing on this subject in September 2000 at which representatives of civil society were involved. The debate and vote on the first draft report was taken on 16 November 2000, when the Rapporteurs were given a clear mandate by the Parliament for discussion with the Council. The European Parliament's Conference of Presidents has also given their clear political support. The mandate given (under rule 69, Rules of Procedure) was to "table amendments seeking to reach a compromise" in order to adopt the regulation in a single reading and within the date set in the Treaty to implement Article 255 TEC (1st May 2001).
A series of Trilogue meeting (Discussions between the Council, Commission and the Parliament) have taken place from January to March 2001. All various versions of the compromise amendments were discussed in public committee meetings following the Trilogue meetings. The process has been considerably more transparent than a conciliation process when only the final texts of negotiations are published. These discussions culminated in the agreement of a text which was adopted by the LIBE Committee on 25 April 2001. Coreper (Council meeting of permanent representatives) also gave their agreement to the text on the same day. The Commission, who were present at the Parliament's vote, also gave their agreement to this solution.
The vote will now be taken by the whole Parliament on Thursday 3 May in Brussels. Under rule 69, amendments from parliamentary committees or political groups cannot be tabled. If the Parliament accepts the text adopted by the LIBE committee on 3 May, the Council of Ministers are scheduled to formally endorse the regulation on 14/15 May.
A sensible solution for sensitive documents
There are some cases when documents should not be released into the pubic domain. This new regime means that every document is considered on a case by case basis, there is no blanket exception. Security and defence documents are by no means excluded from the regulation.
It is indeed part of our responsibility as deputies of this Parliament to protect the security of our citizens and the institutions. MEPs have a responsibility to ensure the vital interests of the Union are protected by improving its internal security, whilst at the same time balancing the citizens' rights of access
Key facets of the compromise text
Ø Definition of the document has been widened vis a vis the original Commission proposal - not a step backwards.
Ø There will be a presumption in favour of access to the public for all documents in all areas.
Ø Improved direct access, especially to legislative documents and via electronic means, including 70-80% of Council documents.
Ø Public Register - Virtually all documents of the institutions will be listed, even those categorised as inaccessible.
Ø Inclusion of agencies - Agencies or bodies created by the institutions (such as Europol) will apply the principles of the regulation.
Ø Documents received form third parties will be accessible for the first time.
Ø The only documents where access can be denied to the citizen are those which relate directly to a listed exception (personal data protection included). It has to be shown that such an exception is necessary, and that disclosure would cause harm, therefore the exceptions are not mandatory.
Ø Council obliged to repeal or amend the "Solana decision" in order for it to conform to the regulation - all documents, including those concerning military matters, are accessible.
Ø Overriding public interest clause - this means that, in certain cases, even if disclosure of a document would seriously undermine the institution's decision-making process, it could still be disclosed if there is an over-riding public interest to do so.
Ø Partial access - access to parts of a document, if only parts of a document fall under an exception and so are not accessible.
Ø 30 year rule - The exceptions shall only apply for as long as the protection is justified, with a maximum of 30 years (extended in certain cases).
Ø Each institution will publish an annual report outlining cases where the institution refused access and the number of sensitive documents not recorded on the register.
Ø Parliamentary scrutiny at European and national level. Citizens could report to the parliament cases where they consider a document has been wrongly classified.
Ø Evolutionary clause - on the basis of a Commission report by January 31 2004 regarding the implementation of the principles of the regulation, necessary amendments will be submitted to improve the efficiency of the regulation.