Speech by Tony Bunyan to the "hearing" in the European Parliament on 18 September  2000 concerning access to EU documents and the proposal for a new code



1.

"First, I think we need to acknowledge why access to documents is an issue at this time. It is not simply an issue because it is in the Amsterdam Treaty. It would not have been in the Treaty at all but for the challenges from civil society in the courts and to the European Ombudsman by John Carvel of the Guardian, the Swedish Journalists Union, Steve Peers, Achim Berge, Statewatch and others.

We do not start out with a blank sheet of paper - practice and precedent since 1993 are already on the table.

Perhaps the most basic principle was cemented in this period - citizens and civil society have a right of access to any document subject only to specific and strictly applied exceptions.

Any proposal coming out of the deliberations over the next few months or so which throws out or undermines this principle or which gives citizens less rights than they have now is unacceptable.

The argument is really very simple:

Without freedom of information, access to documents, there is no accountability and without accountability there is no democracy.

2.

I want to paint a broad picture of how access to documents should work:

The starting point is a democratic system with a healthy, diverse, critical civil society. Not one where people vote every five years and let governments, politicians and officials get on with things. No, democracy means participation and accountability.

Anyone should be able (subject to specific exceptions):

a) to obtain copies of all documents, including incoming documents, which are part of a new policy/measure. People have a right to know all the views considered and rejected, all the influences brought to bear - that is to say, for the Commission all the views of outside consultants/academics and national governments and for the Council, the views of governments

And, they have a right to these documents as they are produced - not after the measure is adopted.

b) second, we have to have a right to all documents concerning the implementation of the policies adopted - reports, mission reports, studies etc - which flow from decision-making - again as they are produced.

This allows the citizen and civil society, and those outside the EU who are affected by its policies and practices - refugees, asylum-seekers and third world countries to: take part in the decision-making process and to monitor ongoing practices.

I have never understood why institutions and officials (public servants) want to keep everything secret and demand the so-called "space/freedom to think". Are they afraid that if people know what is going on: "It could fuel public discussion" - as I was told when asking for a document on changing the code of access in July (the "Solana Decision").

Someone should tell these officials they live in a democracy and have a duty to the public and that the best insurance against corruption, fraud and the abuse of power is openness.

Again, in a democratic system, it should be quite simple to understand - citizens have a right to know how and why decisions are made.

3.

Let us look now at the Council of the European Union.

It is not possible to equate the Decision taken by the Council in July - taken without consulting anyone, certainly not parliaments or people - to change the 1993 Decision and the 1999 Decision with any conceivable understanding of democratic decision-making. It was arrogant and contemptuous of democratic standards.

When I was told that access to the document setting out the options for changing the code in July "could fuel public discussion" I was also told that access could offend "the Council's partners". We cannot have a situation where non-EU states (eg: USA) or international organisations (eg: NATO) have a veto over the EU citizen's right of access to documents.

I also thought what is the meaning of a defence and security policy, what is it defending and securing if it requires the denial of citizens' rights and is put through in a way that a totalitarian state would be proud of?

This parliament will, I hope, throw out any attempt to incorporate the "Solana Decision" whether introduced by the Council or Commission. If it is not in the new measure to be agreed by next May it will simply be dead.

4.

My final point concerns the role of the European Parliament, As long as I can remember there has been a "democratic deficit" in the EU and there still is even as the EU prepares for enlargement.

The "democratic deficit" is not just about the powers of parliaments - national or European - it is much deeper than that. It is about changing the democratic culture into a culture of openness, of an informed public and responsible and accountable institutions.

When I first saw the Commission's draft for the new code of access and its unpublished discussion paper (for it too did not consult civil society) I knew there would be "dinosaurs", officials and interests which would try and use the commitment in Article 255 of the Amsterdam Treaty not to "enshrine" the right of public access but to limit and shackle it. I must say that at the moment I am not at all convinced that the new measure is going to be an improvement on present practice. I would not like to see the new code ending up as "A Regulation for the Protection of the Efficient Workings of the Institutions".

The job of parliaments is not just to represent the people, it has a responsibility to defend and deepen the very democratic system through which they are elected in the first place.

I believe the outcome, the resolution of this issue will be a defining moment, not just for democracy in the EU but for this parliament as well.

This parliament has the opportunity to substantially redress the "democratic deficit". I hope it will take it and show the people of Europe that they do indeed have a champion for their rights and their democracy - because democracy does not belong to governments, Brussels institutions or to MEPs, democracy belongs to the people."

* The views expressed here are solely those of the author. Statewatch does not have a corporate view and does not seek to create one.

POSTCRIPT

Mr Brunmayr, speaking at the same seminar on behalf of Mr Solana, argued that "written procedure is quite normal way to take decisions". The normal use of "written procedure" is for the adoption of measures on which there is a consensus in the Council. It is not at all clear why "written procedure" was used to put through the "Solana Decision" instead of waiting for the next meeting of the General Affairs Council on 18 September - perhaps the time gap would have lead to public discussion on the issue.

The last time an especially controversial measure was put through by "written procedure" was on 17 January 1995 when the EU adopted the FBI "Requirements" for the interception of telecommunications.



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