US government vetoes Statewatch request for access to EU-US agendas

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The US government has vetoed a request by Statewatch to the Council of the European Union (the 15 EU governments) for access to copies of the agendas of the "Senior Level Group" and the "EU-US Task Force". The Council says it has no option but to deny access. The agendas cover a wide range of global issues including policing and immigration, trade and aid.

Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor comments:

"This decision confirms our worst fears on the implementation of the new Regulation on public access to EU documents, namely that third states or organisations will have an absolute right to veto access by EU citizens to documents which third parties have authored, or co-authored, and which are the basis of, or an influence on, EU decision-making.

If this decision stands it will remove whole swathes of documents from public scrutiny on all aspects of international policy making and practice and yet again undermine democratic standards and accountability. We have lodged an appeal against the Council's decision and will, if necessary, take the issue to the European Ombudsman or the Court of Justice."

In July last year - after a four year fight and two successful complaints to the European Ombudsman - Statewatch finally obtained the agendas of ten EU-US high-level planning meetings between September 1996 and February 1998. The agendas concern meetings of the "Senior Level Group" and the "EU-US Task Force" set up under the New Transatlantic Agenda agreed in 1995.

On 23 July 2001 Statewatch applied to the Council for the agendas of these two groups since 25 February 1998. On 22 August the Council extended the deadline for replying by one month and on 20 September the Council asked for more time to carry out "consultations". As no reply was received Statewatch wrote again to the Council on 15 December. On 18 December the Council finally replied - after the new Regulation on access to documents had come into force on 3 December 2001.

Their letter said that the agendas of the "Senior Level Group" and the "EU-US Task Force" were "drawn up jointly by the EU and US side" and are "at least partly- third party documents". The Council had therefore "consulted the US authorities" and:

"the US authorities said they were opposed to releasing the documents in question, as in their view they are to be considered as "government-to-government documents" not intended for - even partial - publication.

In these circumstances, the General Secretariat [of the Council] cannot but conclude that the release of these agendas would significantly disturb the good functioning of the cooperation between the European Union and the United States"

On 6 January 2002 Statewatch lodged an appeal against the refusal of access to the agendas:

a) It contests the issue of "co-authors" which was the expressly addressed, and rejected, by the European Ombudsman in the original Statewatch complaints;

b) It says that the Council's claim that releasing the agendas could "significantly disturb the good functioning of cooperation between the EU and the US" is preposterous - the 1996-1998 released agendas showed they contain no sensitive information;

c) The Council's view that because the US objects to the release of the agendas that it has no choice but to refuse access is contrary to its obligations under the Regulation to reach an independent decision.

Full-text of Statewatch's confirmatory application (appeal):

"1. The Council refusal to give access to the agendas says that "Each request will be studied on a case by case basis" yet your response suggests that where a third party (in this case the US) is opposed to the release of documents that the Council has no choice but to refuse access (see point 5 below).

2. The Council argues that "New Transatlantic Agendas are documents drawn up jointly by the EU and the US side and are therefore - at least partly - third party documents in the sense of Article 3.b of Regulation 1049/2001". I acce

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