The European Ombudsman
Press Release No. 6/2001

13.03.2001


Ombudsman acts against Council secrecy

The European Ombudsman, Jacob Söderman, has criticised the Council of the European Union for failing to respect rules on the right of access to documents. The Ombudsman has made two draft recommendations following complaints received from Statewatch, a UK body fighting for openness and transparency.

The first complaint concerned failure by the Council to grant access to certain documents from the "Senior Level Group" and the "EU-US Task Force". The Council had originally argued that the documents could not be considered to be Council documents as they had not been prepared under the sole responsibility of the Council. Following the Ombudsman's rejection of this argument in June 1998, the Council then took the view that the relevant documents were not held by the Council but only by its General Secretariat. The Council therefore claimed that the documents fell outside the scope of its public access rules.

The Ombudsman considers that the Council's view is mistaken. In his view, the Council's General Secretariat cannot be considered to be a separate institution. It is a part of the Council. He has therefore made a draft recommendation in which he asks the Council to reconsider the complainant's application for access to the documents in question.

The second complaint submitted by Statewatch concerned (1) the failure by the Council to grant access to certain documents that were put before various of its meetings and (2) the Council's failure to maintain a list of all the documents that were put before these meetings. One of the meetings in question concerned police co-operation in the interception of telecommunications. The documents in question were referred to in the meeting agendas as all Room documents, non-papers, meetings documents, SN (sans numéro or unnumbered) documents, etc. The Council argued that in view of the transitory or preliminary nature of these documents, not all of them needed to be included in the register of documents and made accessible to citizens.

The Ombudsman takes the view that the principle of openness obliges the Council to grant access to all the documents that are considered by it, unless specific and valid reasons are given for denying such access. However, access is only possible if citizens know or are able to find out which documents have been considered by the Council. The Council should therefore maintain a list of all these documents. In the Ombudsman's draft recommendation, he asks the Council to reconsider the complainant's application for access to the documents requested. He furthermore states that the Council should establish a list of all the documents that are put before Council meetings and make this list available to citizens.

The Draft Recommendations can be found on the Internet at:
http://www.euro-ombudsman.eu.int/recommen/en/000916.htm
and
http://www.euro-ombudsman.eu.int/recommen/en/000917.htm

 

For further information, please call Gerhard Grill, Principal Legal Officer, tel. +33 (0) 3 88 17 24 23.


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